Sea Level Rise Calls for Resilient Affordable Housing

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Sea Level Rise Calls for Resilient Affordable Housing

The first nationwide assessment of coastal flood exposure for affordable housing suggests that policy makers can reduce vulnerability with targeted flood protection and resiliency measures. 

Buchanan, M. K., Kulp, S., Cushing, L., Morello-Frosch, R., Nedwick, T., & Strauss, B. (2020). Sea level rise and coastal flooding threaten affordable housing. Environmental Research Letters, 15(12), 124020.

Rising sea levels, driven by climate change, have exacerbated flooding across the U.S. coastline, damaging homes, businesses, and infrastructure. Cities from Norfolk, VA to Miami, FL have already begun to elevate waterfront homes. In 2019, residents of the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana took part in one of the first federally-funded resettlement programs for communities affected by rising seas. To protect the most vulnerable communities from coastal flooding, new research suggests that policy makers must turn their attention to affordable housing.   


Flooding induced by sea level rise poses a significant risk to the nation’s stock of affordable housing. Typically, affordable housing is less structurally sound than other homes, and therefore faces more severe damage from extreme weather. Residents of affordable housing – predominantly low-income, disabled, and minority community members – are also less financially equipped to recover from this damage. Combined, physical susceptibility, socioeconomic insecurity, and more frequent flooding due to sea level rise pose a “triple threat” to affordable housing residents. 


Maintaining resilient communities requires safe, affordable housing. Unfortunately, the U.S. already falls 7 million homes short of current need – a gap that may grow without adequate preparation for the impacts of climate change.  


To help policy makers protect vulnerable populations from climate impacts, a diverse team of researchers led by Dr. Maya Buchanan, conducted the first nationwide assessment of coastal flood risk facing affordable housing. First, they estimated how many affordable housing units were exposed to coastal flooding in a year, and second, how often each building was exposed that year. Projecting these results over the next 30 years, the team identified states and cities where coastal flooding, exacerbated by sea level rise, posed the greatest threat to affordable housing. 


Of the 7,668 affordable housing units per year recently at risk of flooding in the U.S., New Jersey holds the greatest number and proportion of at-risk homes. In Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington D.C., the percentage of affordable housing units at risk of flooding far exceeds the percentage of general housing units at risk. The data indicates that a disproportionate level of risk from sea level rise falls on low-income, disabled, and minority community members.  


Assuming that the world continues to emit carbon dioxide at the highest levels, the study estimates that the number of affordable housing units at risk of flooding will triple to roughly 24,500 by 2050. By this time, most coastal states will have some affordable housing exposed to flooding at least four times per year. Notably, 75 percent of buildings expected to be exposed by 2050 are concentrated in 20 cities, predominantly along the Northeast coast and California.  


Cultivating climate resilient communities requires protecting socioeconomically vulnerable residents. Efforts to map flood exposure for affordable housing communities helps point policy makers to those with the greatest need for targeted planning and support. In Miami for example, the local government has launched a training and loan program to help owners of affordable housing implement resilient property upgrades. High geographic concentrations of flood-prone homes also point to collaborative, regional planning initiatives as a worthwhile tool. Ultimately, maintaining resilient and affordable coastal communities will require multiple, holistic strategies to combat the impact of rising seas, and protecting affordable housing must be part of the solution.  

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