Affordable Housing Units Prone to Floods Could Triple by 2050

Without swift action to reduce carbon emissions, nearly 25,000 low-income houses will face annual flooding in the next 30 years

Image of a flooded neighborhood in North Carolina. The street is flooded with water and a car is halfway stuck in it. The water comes up to the houses' front porches. A "FOR SALE BY OWNER" sign is in a front yard.
In the U.S., affordable housing units along the coast tend to be built in flood-prone areas where the land is cheaper and developers cannot build. Vicky Somma via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The amount of affordable housing in the United States that is susceptible to damage and destruction caused by coastal flooding will triple by 2050, reports Daniel Cusick for E&E News.

A new study, published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that around 7,668 affordable housing units in the U.S. flood annually. Without swift action to reduce carbon emissions, that number could reach nearly 25,000 units by 2050, reports Oliver Milman for the Guardian. This is the first study of its kind to assess how vulnerable affordable housing units are to flooding and rising sea levels, according to a press release.

According to Reuters, previous studies have forecasted how houses along the coasts will be affected by climate change, but "there’s been much less attention put on these lower-income communities," says computational scientist Scott Kulp of Climate Central, an independent group of scientists and communicators researching climate change.

The team of researchers used maps of low-cost and federally subsidized housing units and coupled them with flood projections to forecast how communities will be affected in the future, reports the Guardian. They found that states like New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York are expected to have the highest number of units at risk of flooding at least once a year by 2050, according to the press release.

The U.S. is already facing an affordable housing shortage—there are only "35 units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters," reports Patrick Sisson for Bloomberg. That amounts to a shortage of 7 million units, so losing any more units will add to the deficit. For example, almost half of the available affordable housing units in New Jersey are projected to flood at least four times per year by 2050.

Within the next 30 years, coastal flooding will affect 4,774 affordable housing units in New York City, 3,167 in Atlantic City and 3,042 in Boston. Other cities will see a huge jump in the number of at-risk units: Miami Beach will see a 1,074 percent increase in at-risk units and Charleston, South Carolina, will see a 526 percent hike by 2050, according to the press release.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on coastal communities all over the world, but people with low incomes are being disproportionately affected by the ensuing hurricanes, floods and rising sea levels.

"The point here is that two neighbors can suffer from the same flood, one living in affordable housing and one in a home they own, and experience a very different outcome," study co-author Benjamin Strauss, the CEO and chief scientist at Climate Central, tells Bloomberg. "Many more people in the general population will be affected by sea level rise than the affordable housing population. But the affordable population group is the one likely to hurt the most, who can’t afford to find a remedy on their own and tend to not have the voice needed to change the allocation of public resources."

In the U.S., affordable housing units along the coast tend to be built in flood-prone areas where land is cheaper and developers cannot build, leaving low-income families to contend with expensive reconstruction when their homes are damaged, reports E&E News. Most floods don't destroy homes altogether, but they inflict damage slowly over time and creates persistent problems, reports the Guardian. For example, basements that regularly flood can become infested with mold, posing a health risk.

"There are people who would say any buildings in the floodplain shouldn’t exist," Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust, tells Bloomberg. "It’s not necessarily fair to pit the climate and housing crisis against each other. The housing crisis is severe. We need to both save existing stock and make it more resilient.”

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