Case Study Finds Low Wages and Lack of Affordable Housing Influence Relocation Decisions Following Disasters

A paper published in Housing Policy Debate, “Perceptions of Local Leaders Regarding Postdisaster Relocation of Residents in the Face of Rising Seas,” provides a case study of local leaders’ perceptions of why residents relocate after disasters and examines whether sea level rise affects these decisions. The paper finds that local leaders in Monroe County, Florida, attributed residents’ decisions to relocate away from the county to short-term challenges, including low wages, lack of affordable housing, and the threat of another disaster. While leaders view sea level rise as a threat to their community, they do not think it influences residents’ decisions to relocate.

Monroe County, Florida, is home to the Florida Keys – an island chain off the coast of the state where most of the county’s residents reside. The research providing the basis of the case study was conducted a year after Hurricane Irma struck the region in 2017 and evaluates the influence of both sudden shocks like hurricanes and longer-term threats such as sea level rise. The researchers collected data through 27 interviews with 15 community leaders, including church officials, staff at local organizations, and government officials. Though the research assessed residents’ reasons for relocating, most residents decided to stay in the Keys following Hurricane Irma. Interviewees mentioned the tightknit community and attachment to the physical location as reasons for choosing to stay put.

Interviewees cited high housing costs, high costs of living in general, and low wages as some of the main influences impacting residents’ decisions to relocate following Hurricane Irma. The median rent for a two-bedroom in Monroe County is $2,268, and 58% of renter households are housing cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income toward rent. The lack of affordable housing is partly a result of high-income households migrating to the Keys from other parts of the country and zoning regulations that restrict construction and growth. In addition to limited affordable housing, the economy is largely tourism-dependent, and wages have not kept pace with the high cost of living. Fourteen percent of the Keys population works in accommodation and food services or retail – industries that pay low wages.

Sixty-five percent of interviewees cited impacts from Hurricane Irma as influencing residents’ relocation decisions. Many residents working in the tourism industry lost jobs immediately following the storm. Irma also disproportionately damaged the housing of low-income residents, including manufactured homes and RVs. Interviewees suggested that the combination of job loss and loss of affordable housing made living in the Keys unsustainable for some low-income households.

While local leaders acknowledged the risk of sea level rise, they did not think this longer-term threat had much of an influence on residents’ decision to relocate. Nevertheless, they noted that sea level rise most imminently threatened low-income residents, who disproportionately live in the lowest lying areas. Leaders believed residents viewed sea level rise as a longer-term problem that would not need to be addressed during their lifetimes. Some leaders also thought political views questioning the validity of climate change impacted residents’ lack of concern about sea level rise.

The authors suggest that local leaders raise awareness about sea level rise because support from the public is critical to making large-scale investments that address and mitigate climate change. Strategies that address sea level rise must also take equity into account, as risks associated with climate change disproportionately impact poor communities and people of color.

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