Toussaint column: Gimme shelter from fires, drought, floods and hurricanes
August 23, 2018
Returning from a recent trip, my friend Jae, who watched the Lake Christine Fire from her deck, was dismayed to find our valley filled with smoke — again! It prompted her to ask friends where she could move to escape summer fires.
That's a huge question, one connected to lack of snow, resulting drought, more than 100 wildfires in 18 western states, and ultimately, to climate change. What Jae is really wondering is where to go to at least mitigate the effects of global warming.
Last year, between wildfires, six Atlantic hurricanes, epic floods and mudslides, our countrymen suffered $306 billion in property damage. In 2017, climate and weather-related events caused the deaths of more than 300 Americans and forced more than 1 million of us from our homes.
Yeah, Mick Jagger had it right: "Oh, a storm is threat'ning my very life today.
"If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away."
Finding safe shelter is complicated because the effects of warming — the storms, the fires, the floods that Jagger sang about — are indeed global. As are droughts, water shortages and changes in food-growing patterns.
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A few years ago, I worked for an Aspen/Snowmass firm that advertised the motto, "Real estate on higher ground." As best I could discern, the motto referenced both altitude and attitude. The firm is dedicated to meeting the expectations of buyers of Aspen surreal estate, boundaries be damned!
In a place where a home goes for over $7 million (Aspen's average single-home price is now $7.34 million), buyers do have the right to expect that their brokers eat, sleep and dream real estate, I suppose. Employees shouldn't feel offended when a phone call interrupts their dental surgery (though I was and that's probably why I'm not doing that work now).
Lately, I've been wondering whether any real estate agents have begun to offer their services in helping to answer Jae's gimme-shelter-from-climate-change question. There is an "eco-broker" certification. It references advanced green-building knowledge, ensuring that a broker understands a homebuyer's desire for "efficiency and sustainability."
Sustainability? Ruh roh! That would rule out frequently fleeing fires, ocean rise or hurricanes.
While my internet search didn't turn up any seacoast firms offering to locate real estate on "higher ground" per se, realtors in places like Florida are already seeing around a 6 percent discount on exposed homes and offering under-the-table counsel, saying, "No, that place is rather prone to flooding." Rather than, "In a few years, flood insurance will cost more than your mortgage and saltwater will short out the local power plant."
By combining data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Zillow, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has projected that 311,000 homes along the U.S. coastline will face flooding on average 26 times a year within the next 30 years. That's the typical lifespan of a new mortgage, and flooding that frequent could lead communities to an un-sustainable tipping point. As UCS Senior Scientist Kristina Dahl envisions, "When people have to drive through salt water to get to work or face their kids' school being cut off … you can imagine people walking away from mortgages, away from their homes."
A similar tipping point has been reached in the U.S. before, not due to flooding, but to drought. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 2.5 million people left their homes and fled the plains states during the Dust Bowl.
Jesse M. Keenan, a faculty member of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, was interviewed in a recent Medium article. Keenan, who studies the impact of climate change on cities, coined the term "climate gentrification" to describe resettlement patterns that have occurred in multiple places worldwide. In the U.S., it occurred in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and it's happening now in California's Sonoma County following the Santa Rosa fire.
In places that have suffered fires, floods and hurricanes, climate gentrification occurs as those who can afford to rebuild reinforce their homes or move to safer locations. That pushes up costs and subtracts housing stock. Poorer residents and retirees on fixed incomes are forced to sell or move due to repair costs, insurance hikes and resulting higher rents. A millionaire doesn't fret over $50 a month more, but if you're a recent grad struggling with $200,000 of college debt, it can push you underwater.
"This is not about whether you believe in climate change or not," Keenan said, "It's about the impact climate change will have on your livelihood and your pocketbook."
Some cynical part of me says that a massive, coming (but-still-subrosa) alteration of American living patterns constitutes an opportunity for real estate agents, those who can figure out where higher ground might be. Coming soon — the Gimme Shelter real estate certification?
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.