Climate Adaptation Shouldn’t Fuel Inequitable Displacement

Adapting to climate change must be done in an equitable and just way so that the most vulnerable aren't left behind.
Diverse communities like Little Haiti in Miami, FL face the threat of cultural erasure as climate change pushes residents out of their desirable neighborhoods.
Credit: Marc Averette, Wikipedia/CC-BY-3.0

Devastating hurricanes, raging wildfires, and widespread flooding, all made worse by climate change, make it feel like the United States is in a constant state of recovery. But vulnerability to these devastating phenomena isn’t spread evenly across geographies, racial and ethnic groups, or socioeconomic standings.

Some Americans face a greater risk of being negatively affected not only by climate change, itself, but by displacement, redevelopment, and gentrification that can happen after climate-fueled disasters or as a result of climate adaptation activities. Because of this, it’s imperative that climate adaptation measures and reconstruction efforts after extreme weather are designed to include low-income and communities of color and bolster them against future climate, social, and economic hazards.

Adaptation is doing things differently in an effort to cope with current climate impacts and to lessen the blow of future impacts. Adaptation can mean anything from updating building codes to relocating entire cities farther inland, away from rising sea levels. Even communities that are rebuilt with climate adaptation in mind have been shown to favor more advantaged residents and contribute to displacement.

Both climate impacts and climate adaptation can cause this climate-related displacement, the forced movement of people from the area they call home. Climate-fueled events like drought, hurricanes, and wildfires all contribute to displacement. Individuals driven out by climate-related factors often can’t afford to return or have nothing to return to. Displacement can create rising housing costs and reduce availability as areas become more desirable, with the end result an erasure of culture that changes the very nature of communities and regions.    

Gentrification is a widespread issue in many of America’s cities, but documented evidence of climate-driven gentrification is only starting to emerge.

Miami is a case-study for climate gentrification, in which higher-elevation properties have increased in value faster than those in lower-elevation areas. In response, the Miami City Commission issued a resolution in an effort to specifically protect low-income communities and prevent legacy residents from being priced out by wealthier Floridians fleeing coastal flooding.

One study suggests that 22 out of 25 of the U.S. cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding today are located in Florida. Many of these cities, including Miami, are home to diverse communities with rich cultural identities, but that experience income inequality, lack of accessible transportation and affordable housing, and unbridled development.Climate migration is contributing to the housing crisis in Arizona, too. Arizona is prone to drought, and in 2016 Phoenix was the second-fastest warming large city in the country. Many residents are searching for cooler, less-dry climes. Flagstaff, just two hours north of Phoenix, is facing rapidly increasing rents and property values as people from southern Arizona and elsewhere move to its more comfortable climate. About 25 percent of homes in Flagstaff are now second homes, according to Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans.

Soaring temperatures in Phoenix are contributing to displacement in Flagstaff, AZ as residents look for cooler areas to live.
Credit: Alan Levine, Creative Commons/CC0-1.0

Those most able to leave sweltering cities like Phoenix are typically older and wealthier, leaving lower-income residents behind in increasingly unlivable urban centers. New development in more desirable locations like Flagstaff is putting stress on city infrastructure and affordability, pricing current residents out of their neighborhoods. Although city officials have expressed concern over the rising cost of living, a $25 million affordable housing proposition failed last November.

In early December 2018, I attended the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC)’s Investment without Displacement convening in Los Angeles, California—another city grappling with an affordable housing crisis, rampant gentrification, and how to protect its most vulnerable residents. SPARCC works with community leaders in Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Memphis, and Los Angeles to change the systems that have historically marginalized communities; ensure that new projects are community centered and new investments make them more climate-resilient, healthy and equitable.

During the convening, there was a heavy focus on how generational racism in the United States has reinforced socioeconomic disparities for people of color, which in turn magnifies the impacts of climate change. People of color are more likely to live in urban areas, which increases their exposure to harmful pollution and extreme heat, or in poverty, a major driver of climate vulnerability. Additionally, disenfranchised communities often lack the resources to fight back against things like gentrification.

Three generations of the Tongva Tribe—the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin—open the convening with a blessing and a reminder of displacement’s long history in America.
Credit: SPARCC

Systems of policy-making, investment, and power and governing have produced and continue to exacerbate race- and place-based disparities in health risks and climate vulnerability.

SPARCC partners work with foundations, local non-profits, city officials, and members of the community to help make sure investments are community centered and provide solutions to climate-based displacement and gentrification. Some solutions include developing community land trusts and cooperatives for permanent affordable housing, as seen in Atlanta. This incentivizes mitigation and adaptation measures to help protect communities from climate change and engages the health sector as a partner for safe, healthy housing.

Rather than allowing climate change to displace people of color and low-income individuals, either through direct impacts like sea level rise and extreme heat or indirect impacts like gentrification, city officials, community developers and investors must acknowledge and address social determinants for climate impacts.

Equitable and just development must account for the needs and wants of community members, strengthen local business and culture, and work to increase the quality of life for residents in their own neighborhoods. It is imperative that climate adaptation plans consider social equity and include solutions to protect and elevate the most vulnerable communities, so that everyone can thrive.

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