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Florida residents clean the streets of debris the day after Hurricane Michael
Without also ensuring affordable housing, projects to harden an area against climate change tend to cause house prices to rise, pricing out current residents. Photo by Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS/Alamy Live News

Protection for the Rich, Retreat for the Poor

How the United States’ implementation of climate change adaptation programs is exacerbating inequality and breeding a new form of climate gentrification.

Authored by

by Michael Allen

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As the climate warms, coastal communities are dealing with rising seas, more intense storms, and increased flooding. To tackle these threats, governments are investing in various protection measures, from building sea walls to managed retreat. But there is increasing evidence that these adaptation efforts are being applied inconsistently and, as a result, are exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities.

“We spend a tremendous amount of money—billions of dollars—to hold shorelines in place and provide storm damage protection to properties out on coastal resort communities,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. “This applies from Maine through Long Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida. The federal dollars that we spend in those places tend to be spent to protect the value of property.

“Whereas, if you look at locations where we have successfully used public funds to do buyouts, it’s all inland of those resort communities. It’s working class communities, blue collar communities, poor African-American communities,” he says.

Recent research in North Carolina confirms this bias. A. R. Siders, an expert in climate change adaptation at the University of Delaware, looked at the relationships between the risks of sea level rise and flooding, the socioeconomic status of North Carolina residents, and the application of shoreline armoring, beach nourishment, and property buyouts. She found that while the implementation of coastal adaptation measures is linked to risk, as one would expect, the strategies were deployed differently depending on socioeconomic factors.

Shoreline armoring is more common in areas that have low racial diversity and higher home values, household incomes, and population densities. Adaptation measures based around property acquisitions, such as home buyout programs, correlate with high racial diversity and low home values, household incomes, and population densities.

This difference is driven, Siders says, by a US federal disaster policy that is focused on protecting assets and cost-effectiveness, rather than protecting populations. “You don’t build a [US] $1-million flood wall in front of a $100,000 home,” she explains. “And conversely, if I give you $1-million and say I want you to help as many families and acquire as much land as possible, you’re not going to purchase a $1-million home.”

A key difference, Young says, is that investment properties make up most oceanfront real estate in resort communities.

“All of that federal money that we spend on protection is largely protecting businesses and homes that are owned by [companies], not individuals.” The properties inland, however, are primary residences. People’s homes.

The situation is complicated, Young says, because property buyouts can be a good solution for addressing the threats of climate change. But for the high-value, wealthy communities, he says, there is almost never a push for managed retreat or other solutions that could be cheaper for taxpayers in the long run.

Siders worries that if property buyouts and coastal protections continue along socioeconomic lines, they will hollow out the coast. “Only very wealthy homeowners will be left on the coast, and there will be no low-income communities on the coast in the US,” she says. “And that does seem concerning, because public access to the coast has always been a really foundational issue for the US.”

As well as being distributed based on existing inequalities, coastal protection measures are also creating new inequalities.

While climate-minded modifications such as green roofs, climate change–proof parks, and tree-lined streets—designed to help cities prepare for extreme weather events—seem like a win-win for residents, in many areas these greening projects are changing social demographics and driving up house prices.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the city’s plan to protect environmentally and socially vulnerable neighborhoods from sea level rise and extreme weather has actually made many people more vulnerable, says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban studies and planning expert at the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Spain.

The new climate-resilient infrastructure has caused a revaluing of neighborhoods in the city, but the plans have not included sufficient social housing, Anguelovski says. Because of this, many historically working-class residents have seen their rents increase substantially over the past five years. “The fear of many residents, and the experience of many residents, is that they just have to move, because they cannot afford to stay in the neighborhood,” Anguelovski explains. And they don’t just shift down the road. Many people have ended up 15 to 25 kilometers from their old neighborhoods.

This type of climate gentrification is happening all over the world, from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Barcelona, Spain, to elsewhere along the US east coast, Anguelovski says.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, like Boston, is also predicted to suffer from increased storm surges and flooding as the climate warms. Since the early 2000s, the city has been installing green interventions to tackle flooding, storm water runoff, drinking water pollution, and wastewater overflow. But Anguelovski’s colleague, doctoral candidate Galia Shokry, found that, over the past 10 years, these interventions have also led to gentrification.

Shokry found that Philadelphia’s Black and Hispanic residents have moved to areas with less climate protection, making them more socially and environmentally vulnerable, while more privileged—and predominately white—residents have benefited from the city’s improvements.

Anguelovski says that these issues could be addressed with better planning processes that are much more neighborhood driven, and that mandate higher proportions of social housing. Rent controls and higher taxes on developers, which would enable cities to buy more land and build affordable housing, could also help, she adds.

But areas that are naturally more resilient to climate change are also being gentrified. A recent study found that in New Orleans, Louisiana, areas of higher ground with lower flood levels have become inhabited by increasingly wealthy people since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. These areas are now significantly whiter, with higher average incomes and less unemployment. In Miami, Florida, as sea levels rise, higher ground is similarly becoming more valuable.

“The neighborhoods that are always affected the most tend to be ethnically diverse neighborhoods—Black and Latino neighborhoods in particular,” Anguelovski says. “Entire communities that had networks, that had ties, are now being decimated. We are re-creating landscapes of insecurity.”

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