Last week, I talked about what “collapse” looks like in something as complex and dynamic as an ecosystem. A change in one part of the system ripples outward as all the connected parts adjust in response, triggering changes in their connected parts. Rather than the system simply falling like a Jenga tower, it changes shape, shrinking to fill vacuums. As far as I can tell, this is a property of any dynamic systems, and that includes our political, economic, and social systems.
For all of the years that I’ve been writing about climate change, one of the most consistent predictions has been that the worst harm will fall disproportionately on the poorest people. Most of the time the examples given have been poor nations, mostly former colonies, with some focus on poor communities within rich nations, like the minority communities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This makes perfect sense. Poor people and poor nations have fewer material resources with which to prepare for or recover from disasters, or with which to move away from high-risk areas. This has always been the case, which is why you’ll find people living in so-called “sacrifice zones“, where they are routinely poisoned by industrial waste of various sorts. The status quo, absent climate change, already made life more dangerous for poor people, and climate change just adds to the pile. In fact, climate change can multiply those dangers. Flood waters can carry stored chemicals throughout a region, wildfires can fill the air with poison, and poorly stored materials can poison drinking water.
Today, however, I want to talk about a different way that climate change affects people at the lower end of the income range, at least in the United States: access to housing.
While I still hope to own my own home some day, I have to admit that it feels less attainable every year. Having rented since I left college, I’ve seen rent skyrocket, and have had to move several times just because the landlord decided they wanted to charge more, a pattern that’s likely to continue for the rest of my life. Every time I have to move, it requires another big chunk of money beyond rent, and the new place is likely to be charging as much as the old place before long. The whole process might as well be designed to prevent renters from building up enough wealth to buy their own home, without even touching how big landlords use their wealth to buy more homes, driving up prices.
So what happens when we add in the effects of a rapidly warming planet? What happens when a hurricane hits a city? Buildings are damaged, and some homes are rendered uninhabitable, and in need of repair or rebuilding. And the renter? Well, they’re left to find another place if they can, or to live in a hotel. If they’re lucky, federal disaster relief can cover those costs, but that only goes so far, and in the meantime that damage means that rental stock has gone down, and landlords’ expenses have gone up.
Dr. Kelsea Best of The Ohio State University and her colleagues analyzed how the frequency and intensity of a hurricane correspond to changes in median rent and rental housing affordability over time. They found that median rents rise in the year following more intense hurricanes due to declines in housing availability. Their results also suggest that the occurrence of a hurricane in any given year (or in the previous year) reduces affordable rental housing. This was especially true for counties with a higher percentage of renters and people of color.
More than one-third of the American population (44 million households) live in rental dwellings. Renters have less access to post-disaster government aid programs and to benefits from federal mitigation programs such as home buyouts. In addition, people of renter status are more likely to be underinsured, with only 57% having insurance policies as of 2022 (Insurance Information Institute). “Most federal post-disaster assistance programs are targeted to homeowners,” says Best. “Our study shows that deliberate attention must be given to renters – especially low-income and minority renters – in recovery efforts immediately following a disaster event and in subsequent years.”
She suggests that future local, state, and federal policies should provide explicit protections and support to renters after disasters. These could include eviction moratoria, limiting late fees on rent payments, increasing access to emergency rental assistance, and freezing rent increases. Additionally, efforts that prioritize affordable and stable housing supply with up-to-date market rent price monitoring could provide a critical reference for policymakers to understand and respond to renters’ struggles, especially during post-disaster periods.
“Without such deliberate consideration of rent and renters, disaster recovery risks exacerbate the affordable housing crisis for some of the most vulnerable populations,” says Best.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. See, hurricanes don’t just hurt infrastructure, they hurt businesses. They close for repairs, or they can’t get customers because of infrastructure damage, and so what do they do? Same thing they did during the pandemic – they cut costs by laying people off. Suddenly, because of a disaster beyond their control, there’s a group of people who no longer have the money to pay rent, and so evictions go up.
Another threat that renters may face following a disaster is eviction due to either loss of income or the lack of effective rental assistance when the housing supply tightens during the recovery phase.
Dr. Qian He of Rowan University and her colleagues investigated how disasters and post-disaster federal aid contribute to renters’ eviction risks. They found that hurricanes corresponded to higher eviction filings and eviction threats by inflating market rent the year of and one year after the hurricane. Counties receiving higher amounts of aggregated federal aid (both post-disaster and hazard mitigation aid) were associated with lower eviction filings and eviction threats two years after the disaster.
Because remember – the point of the housing market, in the US at least, is to make money, not to house people. Coming back to the collapse of dynamic systems, the motives involved matter. In an ecosystem, everybody’s just trying to survive, so the system as a whole changes based on what organisms do in pursuit of survival and reproduction. Our system revolves around the desires of a tiny minority of people, whose ability to think clearly has been severely compromised by their own extreme wealth and power.
This is part of the feedback loop I’ve dubbed the Age of Endless Recovery, in which we’re caught spending more and more money trying to recover for disasters that keep getting worse as the planet warms. Those at the top are insulated from the damage, and those further down in the hierarchy are forced to pay even more of their hard-earned money to people wealthier than themselves, thanks to the way those at the very top have fought to prevent any real climate action.
Rent keeps going up for a lot of reasons, but if you actually trace them, it all comes back to rich people putting their own misguided interests ahead of the entire species. As the study’s authors say, the problems they outline can be addressed with things like better government support for renters, when disaster strikes, but fundamentally, the problem will not go away until the point of our housing system is to house people, rather than making money off of people’s need for housing.