When Hurricane Irma reached Florida’s Big Pine Key in September, it caused the floor of Terry and Sharon Baron’s cream-colored mobile home to collapse. On Marathon Key, twenty miles north, the winds lifted Diane Gaffield’s mobile home off its concrete pad and smashed it against her neighbor’s house.
A few blocks over, Kimberly Ruth’s mobile home simply vanished into the storm.
Irma was only the start of their troubles. The Florida Keys building code effectively prohibits replacing or substantially repairing damaged mobile homes because of their vulnerability to hurricanes. That leaves people living in one of the nearly 1,000 trailers and RVs damaged or destroyed by the storm with three options: find sturdier but more expensive accommodation, repair or replace the homes and hope code officials don’t notice, or leave the Keys.
“There’s no place to live,” said Sharon Baron.
Around the country, the government’s response to extreme weather is pushing lower-income people like the Barons away from the coast, often in the name of safety. Housing experts, economists and activists have coined the term “climate gentrification.”
“I’m just like a ship with no rudder,” said Terry Baron.
Residents, researchers and housing advocates say global warming is beginning to shift not just the physical characteristics of coastal cities, but their economic and demographic makeup as well. And local officials are starting to worry about it.
“Hospitality is the backbone of the economy here,” said Christine Hurley, the county official responsible for buildings, planning, and code compliance in the Florida Keys. She said the tourism industry can’t function without workers who can afford to live there. “The hotels and the restaurants, are they going to have to start busing people an hour and a half from Miami?”
In Stafford Township, New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 destroyed 3,000 homes. But its lasting effect was more subtle: the superstorm also reshaped the town’s population. Developers have filled lots left empty by the deluge with larger houses, which command higher prices — and therefore wealthier residents.
Brianna Fernandez, a data analyst at the American Action Forum think-tank, who studies the demographic effects of hurricanes, said that coastal areas often become wealthier after a severe storm.
Parishes in Louisiana and counties in Mississippi hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed an increase in median household income years later, long after the short-term boost of rebuilding would have faded, she said. The same was true in New Jersey counties hit by Sandy.
But the trend isn’t true everywhere. Fernandez found that in Galveston and Orange Counties, the parts of Texas hit hardest by Ike, median income six years later had fallen by $6,000.
The explanation is straightforward, she said: in counties that are poor to begin with, hurricanes can push away wealthy residents and leave mostly the poor behind.
Matthew Kahn, an economics professor at the University of Southern California who focuses on climate change, explained those different outcomes through what he called an “amenity gradient.” Plainly put: in coastal areas that people find attractive, extreme weather will entice wealthy people to invest in homes, even as costs and insurance premiums increase. In coastal areas without that physical appeal, or whose appeal isn’t widely appreciated, the opposite will happen.
“In an area that has no amenities, and that’s now at greater risk of climate change, I don’t see climate gentrification occurring,” Kahn said. But in places that people want to live, like South Florida, the wealthy are willing to pay for that privilege — even as others get priced out.
New research suggests the effects of climate gentrification are spreading further inland. In a just-published paper, Harvard University researchers found evidence that concern over flooding is boosting demand for higher ground, expanding the already exclusive band of real estate along coasts to include some formerly less desirable inland areas.
Poverty and Climate
Gretchen Beesing, chief executive officer of Catalyst Miami, a community-development and advocacy group, said she’s not surprised to see data suggesting that climate change is accelerating the gentrification of places like Overtown.
“We see climate as a really important issue that intersects with poverty and financial security,” Beesing said. “For some families, this may feel like an opportunity to get cash for their house. But the problem is then, where do they go?”
A more contentious element of the Harvard study may be its conclusion that prices for single-family homes along the water are appreciating more slowly, and may eventually fall. James Murley, Miami-Dade County’s chief resilience officer, pointed out that Fisher Island, just off Miami’s coast, is the most expensive zip code in the country.
Still, Murley acknowledged that increased flooding and other types of extreme weather would have some effect on real estate trends — the question is what. “I don’t know where all this plays out,” he said.