Future Tense

How to Convince People to Leave Homes at Serious Risk From Climate Change

At a dock, water hits a water level marker at about 5 feet. Two people stand on the dock in the background.
A water level marker is attached to a dock on Orange County’s Balboa Island in 2018 in Newport Beach, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

This article is part of a series form Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise.

Nearly 100 million Americans live on the coasts, and they are continuing to move there at high rates. In fact, the coastal population has grown by more than 15 percent since 2000—faster than the rest of the country—and the population of coastline counties in the Gulf of Mexico region increased by nearly one-quarter between 2000 and 2016. Coastal areas have a population density that is more than five times greater than the U.S. average.

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These coastal hubs are under increasing threat from sea level rise, vicious hurricanes, and other events driven by climate change. The research organization First Street Foundation found in 2020 that 15 million homes across the United States are at substantial risk of flooding, and things are only going to get worse. Scientists project that in a few decades, almost half of Galveston, Texas; more than half of Hoboken, New Jersey; and almost two-thirds of Miami Beach, Florida, will become uninhabitable due to sea level rise.

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Faced with these grim facts, coastal cities, counties, and the federal government are beginning to grapple with how to relocate vulnerable coastal residents. Right now, the most common way to do this is through a process called managed retreat: After a storm damages a home, the government offers a property owner money to move away instead of rebuilding. Typically, the amount of money matches the value of the home, sometimes with a small additional incentive amount.

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Over the past 40 years, the government has relocated nearly 45,000 people in this manner. But as the seas threaten to swallow up entire cities, this incremental approach is becoming increasingly unrealistic—financially, logistically, and politically. It’s also increasingly inequitable.

First, consider the costs. According to Zillow the typical U.S. home costs $308,000, and coastal homes are significantly more expensive on average than inland properties. Relocating just 10 percent of the homeowners that First Street Foundation identified as most vulnerable would cost the government nearly $500 billion, to say nothing of exponentially more expensive propositions like relocating airports, hospitals, ports and other infrastructure.

Then, consider the logistics. Managed retreat buyouts are voluntary, with each individual homeowner applying for, negotiating, and accepting a relocation. That means buyouts are an administrative nightmare for both municipalities and homeowners. As a result, a 2019 study found that wealthier and less vulnerable counties in New England were more likely to apply for buyout funds than more vulnerable Gulf Coast counties in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

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And finally, consider the politics. Property taxes are the backbone of a municipal budget, and no city wants to lose its taxpayer base—especially if it must continue providing the same municipal services and maintaining roads, bridges, schools and hospitals for the few residents who stay put. Fundamentally, there’s no world in which asking people to move away from coastal homes they may have spent a lifetime saving up for is good politics.

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So, if buyouts just don’t work at scale, what is the alternative?

Florida has been experimenting with one approach that can address the long-term problems while allowing people to stay put: conferring “life rights,” coupled with other tools such as tax incentives, for vulnerable properties. For instance, homes might become state property, but residents would be allowed to remain in their homes during their lifetime. Similarly, Norfolk, Virginia’s 2018 zoning ordinance provides for a “life estate” option—allowing some residents to remain in their homes throughout their lives, with their property interest terminating when they die—to help enhance flood resilience and direct new, more intense development to higher ground.

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While this may be a promising long-term alternative, it doesn’t work if a community needs immediate relocation due to worsening storms or flooding. Alternatively, municipalities could experiment with offering other forms of limited property ownership to residents in certain areas. Once an area becomes too unsafe to live in, such as when the average high tide line in a coastal community has risen past a certain level, the homes in that area would stop being owned by the residents, and the homes would become government property.

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Another option would be to put these vulnerable properties into land trusts (organizations that acquire and steward land) and subject them to a “rolling easement.” This rolling easement could restrict harmful shore protection measures such as seawalls (which often erode beaches and destroy coastal habitats), remove pre-existing structures along the coast, and provide notice to coastal residents that their property rights are not infinite. Such a strategy would enable residents to stay until it becomes too risky. North Carolina already prohibits permanent shoreline protection structures, which often end up harming beaches and coastlines.

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Governments could also implement rebuilding restrictions to require residents to move inland if their homes are destroyed by a storm or flood, and prevent these residents from rebuilding in the same place. Maine’s Sand Dune Rules and South Carolina’s Beachfront Management Act both include restrictions on rebuilding a storm-damaged property, such as when a structure is damaged by more than 50 percent of its appraised value. The drawback of this approach is that it’s only activated after damage and destruction occur. Furthermore, in some areas, it may be difficult to find new property where affected residents can rebuild.

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Financial incentives could also encourage more people to move away from vulnerable areas.
New York offers such an inducement to homeowners in areas at regular risk of flooding: If the homeowner agrees to relocate within the same county, they could receive the fair market value of their home, plus an additional incentive of 5 percent of the home value.

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But at the end of the day, these are incremental efforts to address a systemic problem. Perhaps what’s most critically needed is a transformational effort that includes bold investment in vibrant, attractive, and affordable residential and commercial development, built on higher ground nearby that vulnerable coastal residents can readily and enthusiastically relocate to.

We know that climate change is already causing widespread disruption, and that sea levels are rising faster than ever, yet so far our response to the climate crisis has been reactive and incremental. With time running out to avoid a harrowing future, we need to act now to implement the necessary far-reaching measures that match the extent of the crisis we face.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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