Sea level rise flooding, like all natural disasters, tends to harm the people who can least afford it the most. In many cases, low income residents tend to own coastal real estate that isn’t well-protected from rising seas and they may be forced by high costs to go without flood insurance. A new study released this week concluded that low income residents inland from the coast could also face extreme hardship as wealthier coastal real estate owners are forced to abandon their properties and move inland.
The study, titled “Addressing Climate Driven Displacement: Planning for Sea Level Rise In Florida’s Coastal Communities and Affordable Housing in Inland Communities in the Face of Climate Gentrification”, was produced by The Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University. Researchers operated on the assumption that the day will arrive — likely toward the end of this century — when investing in expensive infrastructure — such as elevating properties and installing pumps — will no longer be enough to save sea level rise-inundated coastal properties. When this happens, they predict that higher income coastal residents will move inland to the higher elevation areas now inhabited by working class Floridians.
As they do this, lower income residents will “face increasing pressures to relocate, either voluntarily (eg. selling their homes and businesses) or involuntarily (eg. being evicted for redevelopment projects or unable to afford increasing rents). Experts refer to the process of the wealthy forcing out working class residents as “climate gentrification”.
The study’s researchers said they examined the issue to see if Florida communities are preparing for this type of population displacement. What they found is that with coastal displacement more likely to occur later in this century, local governments aren’t doing anything now to address the inequity that will likely occur when wealthy real estate owners begin to move inland from the coast. They’re calling on “Florida’s policy makers, planners, public officials, advocates, and developers (to) lay the groundwork for a more equitable transition to a new reality imposed by climate change and sea level rise.”
In their conclusion they write: “Florida’s coastal communities can buy time before coastal displacement is overwhelming and shore up policies and investment in lower income neighborhoods to minimize future displacement through gentrification there. It is an imperfect solution to an insurmountable problem, but it reduces the pace and scale of the disruption and reduces the harm faced by those who are likely to suffer most.”
As a resident of South Florida, I’m already seeing gentrification taking place, not due to sea level rise, but due to wealthy northerners’ insatiable hunger for South Florida real estate. The city I live in is upgrading the infrastructure in traditionally working class neighborhoods located inland not to protect the affordable housing there but to make it easier for developers to purchase properties and build higher end housing there. Lower income property owners forced to compete with the wealthy in this situation are also made more vulnerable to displacement by property taxes that rise as their real estate appreciates, escalating insurance costs, and general inflation for things like home maintenance, food and utilities.
This harsh reality makes it easy to imagine that climate gentrification will become a reality when coastal areas can no longer be defended from sea level rise flooding. The researchers state in their report that they’re not sure there’s the political will present to protect the working class from being displaced. From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist and certainly not on the scale that’s needed. It will be interesting to see if the will to protect the working class — who are needed for a healthy economy — develops as lower income residents are increasingly displaced by people moving here from out of state. If it does, it may increase the odds of a more equitable retreat from the coast due to sea level rise in the coming decades.