How climate change could turn US real estate prices upside down

A man removes some possessions from his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. ‘With storm surge and heavy rainfall increasing and climate and sea level rise, the system is just not working,’ says a flood risk analyst. Photograph: Darren Abate/EPA
Richard Luscombe | The Guardian | August 30, 2017

If Florida gleaned anything from Hurricane Andrew, the intensely powerful storm that tore a deadly trail of destruction across Miami-Dade County almost exactly 25 years to the day that Hurricane Harvey barrelled into the Texas coastline, it was that living in areas exposed to the wrath of Mother Nature can come at a substantial cost.

At the time the most expensive natural disaster ever to hit the US, Andrew caused an estimated $15bn in insured losses in the state and changed the way insurance companies assessed their exposure to risk for weather-related events.

Many of the lessons that Florida has learned since 1992 have parallels in the unfolding disaster in Texas, experts say, and what was already a trend toward factoring in environmental threats and climate change to land and property values looks certain to become the standard nationwide as Houston begins to mop up from the misery of Harvey.

“The question is whether people are going to be basing their real estate decisions on climate change futures,” said Hugh Gladwin, professor of anthropology at Florida International University, who says his research suggests higher-standing areas of Miami are becoming increasingly gentrified as a result of sea level rise.

“In any coastal area there’s extra value in property, [but] climate change, insofar as it increases risks for those properties from any specific set of hazards – like flooding and storm surge – will decrease value.”

Miami Beach in particular has become a poster child for the effects of climate change, with some studies making grim predictions of a 5ft sea level rise by the end of the century and others suggesting that up to $23bn of existing property statewide could be underwater by 2050.

To counter those effects and preserve property values, Miami Beach has embarked on an ambitious and costly defensive programme that includes raising roads and installing powerful new pumps to shift the ever more regular floodwaters.

Even so, there are indications that investors are already looking to higher ground elsewhere in the city, such as the traditionally poor, black neighbourhoods of Little Haiti and Liberty City. “The older urban core was settled on the coastal ridge and anything below that was flooded. The coastal ridge we’re talking about is clearly gentrifying,” Gladwin said.

Or, as the journal Scientific American put it in its own investigation in May: “Real estate investment may no longer be just about the next hot neighbourhood, it may also now be about the next dry neighbourhood.”

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