ULI MEMBER-ONLY CONTENT: As COVID-19 has changed housing preferences and led to some migration away from metropolitan areas, climate change also is beginning to trigger migration in the United States, said experts at the 2020 ULI Virtual Fall Meeting. Climate migration is an emerging topic of interest for policymakers likely to have major implications on the real estate and land use sectors (see “The Coming of the Climigrants” in the 2020 Fall issue of Urban Land magazine).
In the concurrent session “Where to Next? Climate Migration and the Cities and Neighborhoods of the Future,” panelists said that climate-driven population shifts are already happening in some U.S. communities. State and local governments that are vulnerable to climate impacts or that expect to receive new residents are preparing.
“The reality is that more individuals are being forced or are choosing to move . . . [and] these changes will have an impact on land uses, land values, and land rights,” said presenter Carlos Martín, senior policy fellow and housing expert at the Urban Institute.
New Jersey is a flood-vulnerable state that has been confronting the reality of climate change and repetitive flooding for some time by helping homeowners relocate to safer locations. The state has many lessons to share from its longstanding buyout program, especially since New Jersey has the highest population density of any state in the nation, increasing the difficulty of finding new homes for residents leaving hazardous areas.
“We have thousands of severe and repetitive loss homeowners in our state . . . and our main criteria is getting families out of harm’s way,” said presenter Fawn McGee, bureau chief of state land acquisition for New Jersey. McGee leads New Jersey’s Blue Acres Program, an initiative established in 1995 to facilitate post-flood buyouts. The program expanded significantly after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and now partners with 19 different communities in 10 counties across the state.
During the presentation, McGee shared lessons learned from the Blue Acres Program including those about how buyout properties are valued, how to simplify the process for property owners, and how to secure program funding. “The reality is buyouts break the cycle of flood damage and recovery. . . . In the long term, this is a beneficial and healthy change for their community,” said McGee.
Meanwhile, Orlando is preparing for an influx of new residents. “We will be one of those cities that welcomes climate migrants as they flee from their homes,” said presenter Chris Castro, director of sustainability, who emphasized the city’s inland, less flood-prone location. Castro described lessons learned from receiving new residents in 2017 who first evacuated from Hurricanes Maria (which catastrophically affected Puerto Rico and the Caribbean) and Irma (one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record) and then elected to stay.
Castro emphasized that bolstering housing affordability and accessibility is a key component of Orlando’s climate resilience strategy. A new city office, the Hispanic Office for Local Assistance (H.O.L.A.), has partnered with private and nonprofit Orlando organizations to identify temporary housing for new residents as well as help connect newly arrived adults with jobs and children with educational opportunities. To prepare for the long term, Orlando has enabled accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to promote densification and developed a Central Florida Regional Housing Trust to mitigate gentrification and displacement. Orlando has also helped launch the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative with over 80 participating cities to coordinate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
In addition to the mass displacement caused by extreme weather events, all three speakers emphasized that they expect the longer-term economic impacts of climate “stressors” to eventually affect where U.S. residents choose to live. “People will be going to large cities with jobs and housing as nearby as possible . . . in all cases [where climate displacement has already taken place], there are very clear demographic changes that are occurring, particularly around race and income,” said Martín.
In a Fall Meeting general session on climate risk, speaker Spencer Glendon, former investment manager, now a senior fellow with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, answered audience questions on the cultural adaptation that might occur because of climate displacement and migration.
“We haven’t seen much impact yet from climate migration [in the United States] . . . but this is a really big problem that is easy to foresee but hard to plan for . . . whether [climate] migration happens slowly or quickly is one of the most important things. . . . We need to be planning for this,” said Glendon.
The observations of these climate experts match the big-picture real estate trends described in the Emerging Trends in Real Estate®: United States and Canada 2021 report. Released this October, Emerging Trends documents that “a significant single-family-housing-market trend emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘the Great American Move.’ People (and businesses) are moving in all sorts of ways—to different geographies, from denser cities to the suburbs, from an apartment to a home, and, for some, back “home” to live with family members. . . . Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the markets that offered a good combination of economic diversity and relative housing affordability, along with less exposure to industries affected by COVID-19 (such as leisure and hospitality), outperformed.”