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Affordable Housing vs. Global Warming

09/19/2009

The year is 2035. It is clear that the steps taken to reduce global warning at the summit in Copenhagen in December, 2009 were not nearly enough. Miami Beach is covered with a foot of water. Miami and Fort Lauderdale have suffered the fate of the Maldives Islands, as much of the cities are submerged. The story is the same in the Florida Keys, which were largely evacuated years ago. The predictable environmental disaster of high waters is now of age, and counties adjacent to the expanding Atlantic Ocean have lost billions in tax revenue. Places to live had just disappeared, and once proud condominiums stand as silent monolithic memorials to improper land use planning and the environmental disregard of  past eras.

Hundreds of thousands of environmental refugees have been displaced by waves, sand, fish, and massive pollution and have moved inland. Areas to the west of the waterways, once considered “blighted” and “undesirable” are now the home towns of those who wanted to, but now cannot, live on the once glamorous barrier islands.

Room for lower income housing has been squeezed to the max, and affordable housing itself has been displaced, and along with it, the millions of lower and middle income workers who service our shops, restaurants, hospitals, governments and corporations. It seems as if in only a few short years, affordable housing has become yet another casualty of climate change. Those that cannot afford to live in affluent areas now live distressingly far from their places of work. It is now common place to travel 75 to 100 miles a day, one way, just to get to work in South Florida to earn a living.

Municipal, County and State leaders engaged in political gridlock a mere 26 years ago simply were unable to formulate strategies to achieve meaningful responses to rising sea levels. The largely irrelevant debate about the cause of higher sea levels (man-made or natural causes) has long resolved…it was both. As populations shifted to the now shrunken Florida peninsula, those that were born in 2009 look back, with the curiosity of 26 year olds, and ask, why was there so little planning when they were children. Why, they ask, did it fall upon their generation to deal with the problem of global warming refugees in a state which continues to diminish, mile by mile?

With all the discussion about the effects of global warming, careful scrutiny must be focused in 2009 on the need to provide affordable housing in coastal areas likely to be impacted by rising sea levels. We need strategies designed to cope with the new reality that the sea is going to encroach upon our municipal domains.  Already, in Fort Lauderdale, during the week of September 13, 2009, all one had to do is step out on the soggy commons of Gateway Terrace, along the Intracoastal Waterway, to see high tide waters foretelling a future of submersion. Another few inches at high tide and much of Downtown Fort Lauderdale will experience flooding along the intrusive New River. Responsible thinkers in the Keys are thinking about their tiny islands and survival as those low lying areas, like those in the Pacific, face the prospect of flooding and eventual burial at sea.

It is not too soon to think about moving those who live along the intracostal region to inland areas in future years, the resultant loss of property tax revenues, and the relocation of, well, literally, millions of once comfortable, and dry, residents.

If we are not careful, one of the great casualties of climate change will be affordable housing opportunities and communities. Global warming threatens not just our weather, but it threatens our local real estate and business economies, as well as our future housing options. Unless we are careful today, one can foresee the day

when affordable but economically defenseless communities are uprooted to make room for those who can no longer live on threatened coastal areas. Already we have seen the displacement of thousands of mobile home residents in Broward County, Florida so that new developments can be created. The motive thus far has been purely economic…the goal in the future will be the very survival of counties…to find new homes for those displaced by the growing sea.  Despite the fact that the law of Florida requires comprehensive plans that provide “housing elements” for existing communities, present laws have been insufficient to follow the established public policy of providing affordable housing opportunities. Such statutes will be under greater stress as the impact of sea level rise becomes manifest and society grapples with what to do.

The problem is not limited to Florida, nor is rising salt water levels the only antagonistic and threatening element of global warming.  The conflict between the need to adapt to the effects of climate change but still allow our communities to thrive (by providing affordable housing for those that oil the engine of our economy) is real, and is just beginning, all across America, from Hawaii to California, to the Gulf Coast and the Northeast. If affordable housing is not protected in governmental decisions to adapt to environmental threats, the fabric of our communities will become increasingly frail.

Witness a political press release from the opposition party in New Jersey on January 14, 2009, entitled, “Corzine’s Global Warming Goals Conflict With His Affordable Housing Mandates.” According to the release, “Eliminating sprawl and shortening commutes as called for in the global warming plan are worthy goals, but they will be impossible to achieve when another plan from the administration shifts development from urban centers to the suburbs.”  It is clear…Housing advocates are about to butt heads with environmental activists and planners. Both have worthy aspirations, and each deals with societal imperatives. What’s needed is a careful balance of interests before things get out of hand due to lack of planning and attention.

In a sobering report released on June 16, 2009, the U.S. Global Change Research Program warned, “An increase in average sea level of up to 2 feet or more and the likelihood of increased hurricane intensity and associated storm surge are likely to be the most costly consequences of climate change for this [Southeast] region. As sea level rises, coastal shorelines will retreat. Wetlands will be inundated and eroded away and low-lying areas including some communities will be inundated more frequently-some permanently-by the advancing sea.” The report adds the rapid rise in sea levels will destroy barrier islands.

Since so much of our population is clustered on these islands and low-lying areas, we have a real problem to plan for, not later, but today. We must address the rising conflict between global warming and the need for affordable housing with all deliberate speed, as it involves millions and millions of people and their future.

Local, county and state governments are quietly looking at what do to about the inconvenient issue of a changing environment. The question is, are they looking at how to keep all elements of their cities and towns together, by insuring affordable housing alternatives but still trying to sustain their future existence?  As local and regional governments study the practical problems posed by rising seas in South Florida and New York City, we await the forumlation of realistic action plans.

Putting off these issues for “another day,” even for another year, may be politically expedient, but the represented populations are not well served, nor is the very next generation, if we ignore the dynamic oceans and the challenges they present to  housing policies.

 

June 16, 2009 press conference releasing the “Global Climate Change Impacts on the United States” report, authored by the United States Global Change Research Program. “The report summarizes the science and the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. It focuses on climate change impacts in different regions of the U.S. and on various aspects of society and the economy such as energy, water, agriculture, and health.”
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