The Langfords got out of Houston just in time. Only two months after Sara and her husband, Phillip, moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in June 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck, destroying their previous house and rendering Sara’s family homeless.
By comparison, Norfolk felt like paradise. The Langfords fell for Larchmont. There were young kids making chalk drawings on the streets, seniors and college students running side-by side along nature trails and crepe myrtle blossoms popping up on quiet streets.
But the Langfords noticed something troubling about their tour of the neighborhood, which is located on the banks a slow-moving river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Sara told me that they were looking at a house near the water and then [our real-estate agent] began talking about flood insurance. “I said, ‘Really? In this area?'” The houses were about half a mile from the river, but monthly flood-insurance premiums on the homes were $800 to $1,000–almost as much as their mortgage payment.
Driving down a waterfront street called Richmond Crescent, the Langfords noticed that every home had been elevated at least 10 feet off the ground, perched atop a giant frame of concrete. Although flooding was not an issue for decades, the rise in sea level has made it more frequent. Now some streets in Larchmont flood at least a dozen times a year at high tide, and the wrong combination of rain and wind threatens to turn the neighborhood into a labyrinth of impassable lakes and puddles. The elevated homes proved to be a problem for Sara and her family, who were still recovering from Harvey. She said that she was shocked to see the elevated homes. “I said, ‘We’re just not even considering the area anymore.'”
You can imagine each of the homes in Larchmont–and elsewhere along the coast–as a stick of dynamite with a very long fuse. We lit the fuse when humans started to heat the Earth. Ever since then, a series of people have tossed the dynamite among them, each owner holding the stick for a while before passing the risk on to the next. Each of these owners knows that at some point, the dynamite is going to explode, but they can also see that there’s a lot of fuse left. As the fuse keeps burning, each new owner has a harder time finding someone to take the stick off their hands.
Norfolk and many coastal cities like it might be closer to exploding than many of their residents think. The payment term for a standard mortgage loan is 30 years, and the median length of homeownership is 13 years. Meanwhile, the lowest-lying parts of Norfolk are roughly five to 10 feet above sea level, and climate scientists believe that sea levels in the city could rise by as much as two feet before 2050. What number of times more will the dynamite be changed before it explodes?
Although many people in the United States still think about climate change in the future tense or as something that happens in far-flung corners of the world, the warming planet is already altering where Americans live. Hurricanes are growing stronger, wiping out swaths of houses along the Gulf Coast each year. Wildfires now burn relentlessly in California, incinerating homes in mountainous areas and contaminating major cities with smoke for weeks at a time. Many cities in the West have begun to restrict housing development because they fear there won’t be enough water for future residents. These disasters are continuing to create a new trend in displacement: Tens of thousands, or more Americans, are leaving their homes and moving into cities across the West as a result of climate change.
This displacement is at once profound and not very visible in the coastal housing market, where buyers and lenders are just beginning to digest the immense consequences of future sea-level rise. All of America’s coastal real property is worth more than a trillion dollars. As buyers start to avoid homes that are most at risk of flooding and erosion, a significant portion of this value could disappear. As home values fall to reflect climate risk, wealthy homeowners and investors will dump their distressed assets and flee, while middle-class homeowners like the Langfords will be left to deal with climate catastrophes and costly mortgages. The resulting turmoil could reshape the Eastern Seaboard, threatening the growth of coastal cities such as Norfolk and potentially triggering a slow migration inland.
Climate-adaptation efforts tend to focus on preparing for and recovering from major disasters–how we can protect our communities from wildfires, or how we can help people rebuild after a hurricane destroys their home. The future of a city like Norfolk hinges on far more difficult questions: What should we do with the dynamite? It is not clear who should take responsibility for getting rid and how long can people continue to pass it around. The coastal housing market is one of many places in the United States where homeowners, governments, and private actors are wrestling over how to answer those questions.
Consider who absorbs the damage when the dynamite erupts. Although homeowners buy insurance to protect their homes from natural disasters like floods or hurricanes, they are not able to prevent the potential for the price of the home falling as sea level rises. They will be left holding toxic assets. Thus, home sellers and real-estate agents in risky areas have every incentive to understate the danger that their properties face, which means that many buyers like the Langfords don’t know how vulnerable they are until it’s too late. Because they depend on the growth of new residents and development for their income, local governments are also tempted to minimize danger.
The federal government has opposite incentives. FEMA invests billions in helping flood-prone areas rebuild. It also manages the flood Insurance authority. The feds have the responsibility to assist these areas. Therefore, the government should send clear signals regarding climate risks and help people move to safer places. The high flood-insurance premiums in Larchmont were one such signal, designed to scare away homeowners like the Langfords. Banks and insurance companies have similar motivations: Because they stand to lose enormous amounts of money if they underestimate climate risk, these parties have every reason to seek out more information about flood danger.
The result is a kind of silent argument between the various parties, a dispute over whether and when to give up the dynamite. Federal government, major insurance companies worry about climate risk. Homeowners and local governments attempt to minimize those alarms as much as possible by hiding risk and building mitigation projects for natural disasters.
We don’t know to what extent the housing market has started to respond to this risk, but there are early warning signs. Research has shown that while home values fell in the wake of hurricanes, they rebounded as people forgot the danger of disaster. Now a growing number of studies shows that buyers and lenders in coastal housing markets are starting to leave flood-prone areas even in the absence of any major flood. Home prices in the lowest-lying parts of Miami Beach no longer rise as fast as prices on higher ground, and banks in North Carolina have started to transfer more flood-prone mortgages off their balance sheets, selling them to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. One study estimates that floodplain housing in the United States is overvalued by as much as $34 billion.
Caught in the middle are homeowners like the Langfords, who have to interpret all of these economic signals through the lens of their own lives. People often make uninformed decisions regarding where they want to live. Eventually, however, people will have to reconsider where they live and the risks associated with climate change. People can be forced to change their lives by the unpleasant experience of living in flood waters or seeing high-rise homes along a waterfront street.
The Langfords ended up buying a house two neighborhoods over, in a slightly blander area called Colonial Place. The Langfords chose to buy a house that was just outside of the floodplain, and did not require flood insurance. A few months after they moved in, however, they started to find that some blocks in their neighborhood became swamped with water after every heavy rain. The estuary that ran along the west edge of their neighborhood was prone to overflow into lower-lying streets. This cut off one main thoroughfare, and caused water to pool around the cars parked there. When there was a high tide in autumn, salt water flowed from the east through Colonial Place. After they had given up on the one-stick dynamite, they found themselves with another.
This article has been adapted from Jake Bittle’s forthcoming book, The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration.