The debate over gentrification is constantly raging in Los Angeles—home to the most gentrified neighborhood in America.
That’s about to get significantly worse. Welcome to the age of “climate gentrification,” when the effects of climate change cause residents in one area to relocate to another area that is not experiencing those problems, which drives up property prices.
“In the past few years, it’s become clear to me that forest fires have an equal weight and influence,” Jesse Keenan, a faculty member of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the inventor of the term “climate gentrification,” said of wildfires in the southern California area.
“It makes perfect sense to me that at some point in time in Southern California people will want to move to areas that are proximate to their communities, and that may mean moving to areas that are lower risk but have… a different set of cultures and socio-economic characteristics.”
Keenan started formulating the idea of climate gentrification about six years ago and focused on sea level rise in places like Miami, where he’s from. One example of climate gentrification in the area is of a predominantly black neighborhood in Miami known as Little Haiti that has seen home prices doubling as residents who wish to escape sea level rise search for homes that are at a higher elevation in the city.
Keenan didn’t initially consider the effects of wildfires, but he now believes the fact these fires will likely continue to become more frequent makes it likely residents of means will try to find safer places to live nearby that may currently be inhabited by working class people and communities of color.
Keenan emphasized this only won’t happen in Los Angeles, as wildfires are putting communities at risk all across the West Coast and beyond.
One big reason people may choose to abandon a place threatened by fire is insurance. If an insurance company decides a neighborhood is becoming too risky and refuses to offer home insurance, it becomes far more difficult to rebuild, sell property and maintain a mortgage.
“There are these areas that are pretty vulnerable, and they’re going to burn over and over again,” Keenan said. “That should be very effective in driving people out. Even if they can rebuild, they’re going to risk being under-insured or not insured at all. And if you have a mortgage, you have to be insured.”
Keenan explained that climate gentrification is distinguishable in many ways from regular gentrification. “Gentrification, in the classic sense, is about supply,” he said. “It’s about a developer who comes in and sees a value and wants to capture that value, and they create supply and people flood in... Climate gentrification is totally different because there’s a change in consumer preferences. It’s not about supply, it’s about demand. It’s a shift in demand.”
And it’s not just coastline and beachfront communities that are seeing drastic changes in home ownership within the population—Flagstaff, Ariz. has seen in influx of mostly wealthier people trying to escape the extreme heat being experienced in Phoenix.
That interplay between geography and economics will eventually start playing out on the Westside of Los Angeles, near the beach, where sea level rise will become a threat.
This coastal problem, combined with people fleeing fires to the north, could create a confluence on the center and the Eastside of Los Angeles, which contain many neighborhoods inhabited by communities of color and working class people. Such a shift could cause these areas to become further gentrified as people seek out the safest places to live and own property in the city.
Liz Koslov, an assistant professor of Urban Planning and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, told The Daily Beast that most people will likely decide to move short distances if they feel the need to move due to climate change-related issues. She said people may see the need to find a less risky area, but they’ll still want to be close to their social and professional networks.
“Governments, policymakers and city planners are increasingly anticipating climate change in the projects that they take on and are building protective infrastructure or deciding not to fund the protection of certain areas,” Koslov said. “Their actions in anticipation of climate impacts and in response to disasters… have the potential to displace a lot of people or make places more habitable.”
Koslov explained that it’s not just the impacts of climate change; it’s about the “responses to the imagination of what those impacts will be.”
That means lawmakers will have to first to handle existing problems, which could include subsidizing fire-resistant building materials in areas that are experiencing fires annually, and then there will be actions they take while anticipating problems that could come to be in the future, like building a seawall to prepare for eventual sea level rise. Some areas, often wealthier ones, will almost surely receive more attention and help than others.
The federal government will also have to play an important role by creating programs to help those who need to relocate cover the costs involved, but local and regional governments will be on the frontlines of this issue, Keenan said. He said this is about “land use,” which is largely their responsibility.
It’s possible that federal lawmakers will see the need to get moving on this issue when it starts affecting them where they work. Keenan said Washington, D.C. is going to be facing some of the most severe climate change-related threats.
“There’s no hope for Washington, D.C.,” Keenan said. “It’s built on a swamp. It’s sinking rapidly, and sea level rise is coming in. People don’t generally talk about that, but it literally is a swamp.”
As for the local politicians, there will be lawmakers who have to deal with moving people away from their area and lawmakers who have to figure out how to handle an influx of new people.
“Whenever you talk about the shifting of people in large numbers, there’s a sending zone and a receiving zone, and that receiving zone is going to have to bear the negative consequences,” Keenan said. “There are also positive consequences to this, because… when you bring people you bring economies and you bring both social and financial capital.”
Climate change is multifaceted, Koslov noted. It is a weapon with many edges. Some may try to escape extreme heat and find themselves in a flood zone. They might move away from storms and find themselves in a place engulfed by fire. The complexity of climate change makes predicting where Americans will go extremely difficult, but they will, as they always have, move.
Keenan predicted that further down the line Americans who can afford it will be forced to move north because of the cooler temperatures, fewer wildfires, the lack of superstorms that have been bombarding southern states and other factors.
“There’s no doubt that people will begin to move north,” Keenan said. “The question is: Where’s potable water? Where’s it safe? Where is there an economy and a culture you can tie into?”