Some of the most highly prized real estate in the U.S. exists in areas considered high risk for wildfires, flooding, or drought. Despite this present and growing danger, many Americans are still moving to climate-vulnerable regions.
This may be because some people are willing to take the risk if it means living in their dream home—an attempt to defy nature for one’s own hubris. To better educate prospective homebuyers, real estate brokerage site Redfin now provides a climate risk assessment for every property which includes flood, drought, heat, storm, and fire risk data at a glance. Even with the power of this information, homes with high fire risk are selling for $120,000 more than low-risk properties, per Refin’s June 2022 report.
As housing demand increases, so, too, do the impacts of climate change. Homebuilders and homebuyers are expanding into vulnerable regions called the wildland urban interface—the area where real estate abuts or intermixes with natural land like forests or grassland. A forest without homes in or along the edge is just a forest. But when developers introduce commercial or residential properties, it becomes a wildland-urban interface, or WUI. The U.S.’s WUI, in terms of acreage, grew by 33% over 20 years. Nearly all of that growth resulted from new housing—roughly 14 million homes—being built in or along natural land.
Housing along the U.S. coastline, especially the East Coast, is also at risk. Within the next 30 years, sea levels are projected to rise by up to a foot; within 80 years, up to 2 feet. A matter of inches within the scope of an entire coastline seems unsubstantial, but this increase will bring more intense flooding and storm surges. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, moderate flooding could happen 10 times as often in 2050 as it does today.
Mitigation efforts like governmental buyouts of homes in flood-prone regions can be one solution to this problem. It would cost the government $180 billion to purchase 1 million flood-prone homes across the country, according to a 2019 National Institute of Building Sciences report. Over 100 years, that would lead to a cost savings of more than $1 trillion that would have been paid out in flood insurance and disaster programs, which are federally subsidized.
Moving, either to a climate-vulnerable location despite the risks, or away from it for safety, is a form of privilege. A 2021 study published by the Environmental Protection Agency found coastal flooding, extreme temperatures, and poor air quality disproportionately affect minority and low income populations. And for populations already living in safe regions, climate gentrification—when affluent homebuyers move from climate vulnerable areas into new places, driving up home prices and changing the culture—is an indirect threat to their stability.
Experts predict that for much of the southern and southwestern U.S., a push north to more temperate climates is an eventual certainty for those with the necessary means, as climate change makes swaths of the country inhospitable and drives severe economic losses.
To better understand the climate-related threats Americans face, Stacker looked at population change due to migration in counties with the greatest and lowest climate risk between 2015-2019, citing Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index data and U.S. Census Bureau net migration data. We focused on 2015-2019 because the impacts of the pandemic meant abnormal net migration rates across much of the country.
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