Climate crisis to triple flooding threat for low-income US homes by 2050

The amount of affordable housing in the US vulnerable to coastal flooding is set to triple over the next 30 years, a new study has found in a further sign of the escalating hardships faced by low-income Americans amid an unraveling climate crisis.

Affordable housing in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California is at particular risk of flooding from worsening storms or even high tides pushed on by rising sea levels, according to research conducted by Climate Central, a New Jersey-based science organization.

Currently, 7,668 affordable housing units across the US can be expected to flood in a typical year but this number is set to balloon to 24,519 units by 2050 if planet-warming emissions aren’t drastically reduced. Even if big greenhouse gas cuts are made, a similar number of houses and apartments may still flood due to heating already locked in from decades of fossil fuel use.

“Cutting emissions makes a huge, life-or-death difference in the second half of the century but there will be a growing need to build resilience and adapt no matter what we do now,” said Benjamin Strauss, chief executive and chief scientist of Climate Central.

The researchers used maps of low-cost and federally subsidized housing and analyzed how these dwellings are affected by current levels of flooding as well as expected flooding in the future as the world warms further.

Some of these flooding events can be dramatic, caused by hurricanes that scientists say are becoming more powerful and slow-moving over land as the ocean and atmosphere heats up. The US has been repeatedly battered in what has been the most active year for major Atlantic storms on record.

“It’s heartbreaking to see your town completely demolished,” said Rebekah Winstead, who narrowly escaped Hurricane Laura in August with her three-year-old son. Her trailer home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was destroyed and Winstead has no insurance. “It’s not livable, which is devastating,” she said.

Most flooding events, however, are more attritional, involving flooded basements or streets after heavy rain or high tides. People in low-income coastal areas typically have to move cars or electrical equipment to avoid them being soaked, or live with mold that can sprout in damp home fixtures. More affluent coastal property owners also face risks, although researchers point out that they can bounce back more quickly than people in poorer, low-lying areas clustered near back bays and channels that frequently flood.

“We don’t train our attention on these neighborhoods but many of them are already suffering significantly from these problems,” said Strauss. “Low-income people don’t have the resources to respond or recover from these increasing floods. The impact upon their lives is far more severe than someone with a second home or a lot of disposable income.”

Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved in the study, said that the research helps outline the personal and economic consequences of flooding suffered by low-income people.

“Wealthy communities have the resources to undertake projects to adapt to sea-level rise and build new infrastructure,” she said. “Furthermore, some of that infrastructure may in fact make the impacts of sea-level rise even worse for adjacent communities. For example, a sea wall that protects one community will just push even more water into the adjacent areas that cannot afford to build a sea wall.”

Dutton said that adaptation to the rising seas needs to protect all communities, with the importance of low-paid but essential workers underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Ensuring the health and wellbeing of essential workers is critical to maintaining a functioning economy,” she said. “In that sense, investing in the future security of affordable housing is of primary importance.”