Sea level rise threatens $1tn in homes, businesses in the U.S.

Rising sea levels due to climate change could put up to 2.4 million homes and businesses totalling $1 trillion at risk by the end of the century, according to a new report released on Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Accelerating sea level rise in the lower 48 states, primarily driven by climate change, is projected to worsen tidal flooding, putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion today at risk of chronic flooding within the next 30 years – the lifespan of a typical mortgage – according to the report.

By the end of the century, homes and businesses currently worth more than $1 trillion could be at risk: as many as 2.4 million homes –roughly the equivalent of all the homes in Los Angeles and Houston combined – valued at approximately $912 billion and 107,000 commercial properties assessed at $152 billion.

According to report co-author Rachel Cleetus, an economist and policy director at UCS, the risks of sea level rise often aren’t reflected in current home values in coastal real estate markets. And unlike previous housing market crashes, “values of properties chronically inundated due to sea level rise are unlikely to recover and will only continue to go further underwater, literally and figuratively”.

The consequences of chronic flooding of properties in specific communities could translate not just into eroding property values, but also into unlivable houses and falling tax revenues that fund schools, roads and emergency services in those places.

“For some communities, the potential hit to the local tax base could be staggering,” said Kristy Dahl, senior climate scientist at UCS and report co-author. “Some smaller, more rural communities may see 30, 50, or even 70 per cent of their property tax revenue at risk due to the number of chronically inundated homes. Tax base erosion could create particular challenges for communities already struggling with high poverty rates.”

According to the analysis, states with the most homes at risk by the end of the century are Florida, with about 1 million homes or more than 10 per cent of the state’s current residential properties, New Jersey with 250,000 homes, and New York with 143,000 homes.

The economic consequences would hit some communities harder than others, and communities with large African American or Hispanic populations – many located in California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Texas – could find it difficult to prevent or recover from chronic flooding due to longstanding social and economic inequities.

“While wealthier homeowners may risk losing more of their net wealth cumulatively, less-wealthy ones are in jeopardy of losing a greater percentage of what they own,” said Cleetus. “Hits to the property tax base in low-income communities, which already experience significant underinvestment in critical services and infrastructure, could prove especially challenging.”


Image credit: Murray Foubister via Flickr

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