Sea levels are rising, so why is coastal construction?

Why We Wrote This

It’s no coincidence that most humans live within about 125 miles of seacoasts, where beauty and economic opportunity often intersect. That allure can create challenges when changing environmental risks enter the picture. This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on “Climate Realities.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Bill Cobau, a retired college professor, lives in Charleston, South Carolina’s Harleston Village, which has seen multiple floods in the past five years from ocean encroachment. One flood ruined his floor, yet a neighbor’s home recently sold for $1 million.

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Bill Cobau, a retired college professor, has spent 30 years watching the tides rise higher and higher in Charleston, South Carolina. One flood last year ruined his floor.

Yet coastal development, not retreat from rising sea levels, is still ascendant here and in other communities along America’s southeastern coast. The pattern is fueled by money, by age-old human affinity for “blue spaces,” and by government policies such as flood insurance that can subsidize risky residences.

Now it’s an uneven real estate market. Many at-risk homes are losing value even as others are snapped up. One home near Mr. Cobau’s is being demolished due to frequent flooding. Another just sold for $1 million. Other owners are seeking approval to elevate their homes.

“The majority of people’s retirement savings is the equity in their house,” says Ryan Lewis, a University of Colorado sea level expert. “And if you think about the timeline of [sea level rise] and people’s savings, those things are converging.” 

As she recalls the flood waters rising once again last month around her Charleston, South Carolina, home, Elizabeth Cooper says she can still hear her mom’s voice on the phone from Iowa.

The home here in Harleston Village – a kind of Colonial-era suburb of mansions and leaning freedmen’s shacks – has seen a slow-motion catastrophe unfold, with six floods in as many years from rain events and hurricanes.

“My mom told me on the phone, ‘Come back to Iowa, we’ll have a beach here soon!’ Ha-ha, right?” says Ms. Cooper, who gave no thoughts to flooding when she bought her house 35 years ago.

To be sure, she says, property values are holding steady for the moment, given the charm of the neighborhood and magnetic pull of the ocean lapping against the city’s world-class waterfront.

But because comedy hints at truth, mom’s joke hit a nerve.

In some ways, the roughly one-foot rise of the Charleston high tide over the past century symbolizes a slow-rolling, real estate emergency that extends far beyond South Carolina.

Yet land use practices aren’t catching up. Here and in other communities along America’s southeastern coast, the dominant pattern remains coastal development and the rebuilding of damaged dwellings, not an orderly retreat from rising sea levels.

The trend is fueled by age-old human affinity for “blue spaces,” and by government policies that experts say amount to subsidies for risky residences.

“Coastal ... real estate development is continuing to be faster than inland, which means we are continuing to put ourselves at risk,” says Susan Wachter, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

About 49 million U.S. homes are within a few hundred feet of a rising coastline. Many houses near the beach are still appreciating faster than ones further inland, despite the prospect of wetter, slower-moving storms and higher water levels, which climate scientists associate with warming oceans. Places like Hilton Head Island could lose nearly half of its livable land in the next 80 years.

“There is over $1 trillion worth of infrastructure within 700 feet of the coast,” says A.R. Siders, a Harvard University social scientist who studies relocation as a solution to climate change. “Even if one-tenth of those people needed to relocate, we are talking about orders of magnitude we have never [seen] before.”

Fast-growing coastal communities 

Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Beaufort, and Hilton Head are some of the fastest-growing cities in the region – and also the most vulnerable. The Lowcountry Hazards Center at the College of Charleston says that in 50 years the city will see 15% of properties affected by flooding each year, compared to 1% today.

Yet Charleston County allowed the building of 761 new homes in vulnerable areas over the past decade. A push to annex low-lying marsh islands like Paradise Island and Cat Island may further add to the region’s development – and tax base.

“In terms of price in South Carolina, the economy is doing very well – so is Georgia and North Carolina – and you have a lot of retirees moving into that area,” says Michael Ferlez, an analyst with Moody’s Analytics. “There’s a limited housing stock, construction hasn’t kept pace with it, and it’s also more affordable than a lot of major sort of retiree havens in Florida and the Gulf area. There may not be a lot of room – right now they are building on tiny little bits of land.”

Some signs already point to economic challenges ahead. Plenty of properties are declining in value. In fact, South Carolina is the only state on the Atlantic Seaboard to not show some recent contraction in coastal real estate values. In the 17 coastal states between Maine and Texas, nearly $16 billion has been shaved off land-value appreciation since 2005 by floods and looming sea level rise, according to estimates by First Street Foundation in New York.

Even here in Charleston County, which stretches from the 18th-century downtown to sleepy marsh islands and beach towns, homeowners have lost $266 million in potential value gains. 

A question for government

This presents an increasingly urgent conundrum for some 130 million Americans – up 10 million from 2010 – who live in coastal counties, off the beach, behind a levee, or up a creek.

Buyers are becoming more finicky. Just a few miles from Charleston’s hot real estate market, Seabrook Island has seen anemic, 1% year-over-year appreciation. Call it climate gentrification: Better protected – or higher elevation – homes are gaining value while flood-prone homes are selling at discounts that can reach 15% or more.

“The majority of people’s retirement savings is the equity in their house, and if you think about the timeline of [sea level rise] and people’s savings, those things are converging,” says Ryan Lewis, a finance professor at the University of Colorado and co-author of a 2019 study, “Disaster on the Horizon: The price effect of sea level rise.”

Meanwhile, pressure is rising on Congress to address subsidies for those who insist on water views. Uncle Sam currently guarantees $645 billion worth of flood-vulnerable property.

“The question is, how much government treasure are we prepared to sacrifice?” says George Caruso, a veteran developer of coastal rental properties who is now a development consultant in Washington. “And where’s the point at which owners or tenants have to have [more] skin in the game? Because the reality is, there is a ferocious demand for stuff near or on the water.”

In some cases, the new economic realities are contributing to better land-use planning – including fewer approvals for people to build on dunes. In other cases, clever architecture eases buyer qualms.

“Buildings are sitting higher, there are more blow-out walls, all the important and expensive systems are high up,” says Mr. Caruso. “It’s quiet. It’s not obvious. You don’t want to panic residents. But if you’re smart, you’re doing it.”

Dying azaleas

Back in Harleston Village, Bill Cobau, a retired college professor, has spent 30 years watching the tides rise higher and higher against The Battery, the city’s historic bulwark.

His porch is pitched to shake off the voluminous rain known to fall here. But in the past year, his favorite azaleas have died from saltwater inundation from multiple floods. One ruined the floor of his old freedmen’s cottage, costing him $4,500.

The neighborhood around him is a snapshot of a haywire market.

Not far from his house, one homeowner opted for demolition after no buyer stepped forward for her frequently flooded house. But the house next to Mr. Cobau’s cottage just sold for $1 million.

“I think what is driving the market, though, are people with $300,000 to spend on a house who still feel comfortable saying, ‘What the heck? Let’s roll the dice,’” says Mr. Cobau.

But broader concern is also taking hold, says Ms. Cooper, the 35-year resident. Storm protections are a top mayoral election issue. The city is budgeting to raise the level of The Battery. Storm drain cleaning has gone from laissez-faire to dogged.

The city has long frowned on raising homes, claiming it will destroy the architectural charm. Such niceties now seem quaint. Today, nearly 100 homes are on the waiting list for an elevation waiver, including the one next to Mr. Cobau’s house.

“Everybody is suddenly concerned,” says Ms. Cooper. “We are desperately looking for the fixes that are going to keep us here.”

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