In 2000, almost 8,000 affordable housing units in the United States were at risk from annual coastal flooding. By 2050, this number could rise to 24,518, according to a recent analysis by Climate Central.

The nonprofit science-journalism organization found that unless emissions drop, rising waters will pose increasingly dire challenges for low-income renters across the country. The U. S. already faces a severe shortage of modestly priced rental housing; climate change threatens to exacerbate this situation.

A decade ago, global warming wasn’t a major topic of discussion in housing policy circles, says Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. But as climate impacts have grown ever more visible, the situation has changed.

“There’s a growing awareness about [links between] affordable housing and climate change,” Aurand said in an interview. “The affordable housing field is becoming more aware that we need to look more deeply into this, and then also what are some of the policy solutions.”

Rent and risk: a challenging recipe

Before climate change even enters the picture, America’s renters face significant disadvantages compared to homeowners. As a group, they have lower incomes and are forced to compete for reasonably priced housing in an extremely tight market. In a recent report, the National Low Income Housing Coalition noted that many of the nation’s most common jobs, including health aide and food server, pay less than a full-time worker needs to comfortably afford market-rate rents. No U.S. state has an adequate supply of affordable properties; meeting the demand would require adding millions of units across the country. Making matters worse, the federal government consistently underfunds housing assistance programs; 75% of eligible Americans receive no public support.

As a result, renters often have no choice but to live in poor-quality units in neighborhoods struggling with inadequate infrastructure and high environmental risk. But these suboptimal conditions don’t always translate to manageable rent – in fact, low-income tenants often pay up to half their wages for housing, making it difficult for them to save for emergencies. In some cases, unexpected costs or reductions in hours lead to homelessness.

When rental homes are affected by disasters such as flooding or storms, inhabitants have little say in when or how repairs are made. Research indicates that these properties recover from storms more slowly than owner-occupied structures. In the absence of public subsidies, they often simply disappear from the market after damage occurs, further reducing the overall supply of lower-cost housing.

Global warming will heighten these challenges, as the Climate Central study makes clear.

Most at risk: Low wage earners and people of color

Prevailing disaster aid practices often provide little comfort to low-income renters; in fact, they can make their lives more difficult over time. In a 2018 article, sociologists Junia Howell and James Elliott argued that damages from natural hazards increase wealth inequality in the United States, largely because public and private authorities prioritize middle-class homeowners in post-disaster assistance efforts. While homeowners may receive insurance payments or low-interest loans after a disaster, renters are often forced to make costly moves, frequently to higher-priced units. “These findings are disconcerting because such damages are widespread; they are projected to increase dramatically, and FEMA aid – as currently administered – appears to exacerbate the problem,” the authors note.

These challenges disproportionately affect people of color. America’s modern-day housing system reflects the legacy of Jim Crow laws and policies, redlining, and other racist practices that have prevented minorities from buying homes in sought-after neighborhoods, and thus from building home equity, a major source of generational wealth.

In a review of 2015 data, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that as a result of racialized divergences in homeownership and retirement account holdings, white households had an average net worth of $139,300, while Black and Latino households had $12,780 and $19,990, respectively.

Given these and other structural failures, people of color are disproportionately represented among the nation’s low-income renters. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 20% of Black households, 18% of Indigenous households, and 14% of Latino households are extremely low-income renters. Among white households, this figure is 6%.

Policy responses dependent on rethinking disaster risks and relief

One solution for protecting renters in a changing climate is to rethink disaster relief, ensuring that it targets those with the greatest need. For example, FEMA offers financial assistance to cover damage of material goods, but only above a certain dollar threshold. “We’ve seen cases where extremely low-income renters have significant damage of their own things, but it doesn’t reach a value level that FEMA recognizes as a significant cost,” said the housing coalition’s Aurand. “But it’s significant for the extremely low-income renter.”

Because real estate speculation and gentrification contribute to the loss of affordable housing both before and after disasters, tenant protection measures such as rent control and community-centered planning can also help. While critics claim that rent control results in unintended reductions of affordable units, the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, a program affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, maintains that rent control has proven to be a useful tool. “Data from states like Massachusetts and New York have shown that rent control can provide significant protections for residents in communities that have rapidly gentrified, allowing residents to stay in their homes,” the group argued in a 2018 brief. “Similarly, a recent study of rent control and just-cause eviction policies in Berkeley and Santa Monica in California protected social and economic diversity in those cities.”

Strengthening disclosure laws to require that landlords inform potential tenants of disaster risks can also help. Today, only a handful of states require flood-risk disclosure, according to a recent article in The Florida Bar Journal. The authors write that in the absence of information about potential hazards, communities can’t adequately prepare for disasters … and renters can’t avoid inflationary pricing that doesn’t account for the full risk of living in a particular property.

One of the most important ways to protect low-income renters from climate impacts, Aurand stresses, is simply to give them better housing options. Improving government rental assistance programs and building more high-quality, low-cost units around the country could go a long way toward protecting vulnerable households as temperatures rise and extreme weather events increase.  

“We need greater investment in affordable housing to begin with,” he said. “We need a safety net in place for these renters even under normal times.”

Also see: The link between racist housing policies of the past and the climate risks of today