Cities That Were Poised to Absorb Climate Migrants Face a New Challenge
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As climate change makes more places unlivable over the next few decades, experts are urging those cities that are spared from the worst to prepare to absorb displaced residents.
But if cities weren’t prepared for a population influx before, many will be even less prepared now, after the pandemic has decimated city revenues and disrupted longer-term initiatives. Some of the cities facing the steepest projected losses are so-called climate havens, places whose geographic location, infrastructure and excess land space are supposed to make them particularly well suited to take in climate migrants.
Buffalo, New York, which has been dubbed a climate haven both by experts and city leaders, stands to lose nearly 20% of its revenue because of its heavy reliance on tourism dollars and state aid. Buffalo and its Western New York neighbors that could also absorb climate migrants, Rochester and Syracuse, together face the worst revenue prospects after Covid of any U.S. cities, according to a recent New York Times analysis. And Duluth, Minnesota, another climate-change destination, is facing a roughly $12 million budget shortfall, even after laying off some city staff and slashing spending in multiple departments.
These kinds of projected shortfalls present a range of challenges to cities’ futures. But a potential population influx makes them that much more challenging, as hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves prompt more Americans to consider moving elsewhere.
Without a lifeline from the national government, cities could make significant spending cuts on infrastructure, public safety programs and affordable housing as they scramble to fulfill immediate needs, according to an analysis from the National League of Cities. “The revisions and budget proposals that are coming forward are trying to identify what the essential services are, to ensure that they continue,” says Vivek Shandas, an urban planning professor at Portland State University, who wasn’t involved with the NLC report.
Experts like Shandas have argued that climate haven cities should focus on expanding their stock of high-density affordable housing. Without these kinds of proactive steps, cities with the best conditions could become havens only for the rich, exacerbating inequality. But in many of these places, money set aside for affordable housing development has been diverted to funding shelters, mortgage and rental assistance, and other emergency programs to stave off evictions. That means city and state programs subsidizing housing are getting gutted, further delaying the construction and upkeep of much-needed low-cost homes, while materials shortages make ongoing projects more expensive. The consequences could last well beyond the pandemic; as CityLab reported in June, affordable housing production “could be hamstrung for a generation.”
Ensuring an equitable climate haven also requires boosting basic services and infrastructure like public transportation, as well as ensuring a healthy job market that can support newcomers of all socioeconomic backgrounds. But some city leaders grappling to stay afloat are warning that they’ll have to turn away from new initiatives.
“If federal action is not forthcoming in the near future, jobs, services and new investments will have to be reduced and eliminated,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said in a statement in May.
Meanwhile, the mass movement of people escaping natural disasters and unlivable conditions could trigger climate gentrification, the idea that particular neighborhoods that are better suited to withstand extreme weather events will see property values and rental prices increase. Scientists at Harvard University have predicted that such gentrification would not only displace existing residents, it would also put climate migrant destinations out of reach for climate refugees who have few financial resources.
Such a scenario could turn a place like Buffalo — whose recent revitalization efforts have already begun fueling the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods — into “a city for white people and other groups who can manage to afford to live there,” as urban studies scholar Henry Louis Taylor Jr. warned last year. A third of the city’s population were living at or near poverty when an economic boom drove up the cost of living without doing much to increase wages and the quantity of high-paying jobs. And poverty rates have been higher among Black Buffalonians in the majority-minority city. That was before the pandemic pushed the unemployment rate in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area to 19.2% in May, the highest in all of New York.
“If a city is not going to prioritize historically disinvested communities during an influx of new people, then they will end up seeing a much higher rate of homelessness and of health-related impacts,” says Shandas. “Or they will end up creating many of the social and political challenges that I think a lot of cities really don’t want to face.”
Some governments are scrambling to come up with the money to keep affordable housing and other programs funded. Detroit — another city often tagged as a potential climate haven — reached into its rainy day and surplus funding back in May to stave off a $194 million shortfall, a move that aimed to maintain the city’s affordable housing, among other things. More recently, the city announced a public-private partnership with a goal to raise $75 million in private capital to help developers preserve and build more affordable housing. It launched at the end of September with an initial investment of $48 million, and is part of Detroit’s larger $250 million plan to build 2,000 new units by 2023.
In Buffalo, local sustainability expert and urban planner George Besch says the pandemic is a wake-up call for the city to be more deliberate in prioritizing initiatives that could help cut budget costs in the long run as people move in. Last year, the mayor said the city was “stepping up and preparing to welcome this new type of refugee” and touted a laudable list of achievements to make the city more resilient to extreme weather, like updating the sewage infrastructure and cutting carbon pollution. But Besch bemoans that the government has been slow about actually making the city livable for migrants, in particular the less-advantaged refugees.
He’s called for the city to make better use of its 16,000 vacant lots, not just to build affordable housing but also to create green space, community gardens and small farms — efforts that address the broader issues of both climate change and income inequality. “We could leapfrog over built cities because we would be starting to address food securities and resiliency,” he says. With climate change and Covid-19 disrupting the global food production system, Besch says Buffalo has an opportunity to become self-sufficient and grow its own food on these lots to feed its residents.
He acknowledges that the upfront cost may be higher and put greater strains on an already diminished budget, but says that in the long run, those cost could be offset by savings. “You think of affordability on a longer range than just what the initial cost is,” he says.
“The trick with this is about how nimble, in the short term, are our municipal governments,” says Shandas. “Are they able to reallocate and reassess budgets to address some of these climate challenges and potential climate opportunities, versus how recalcitrant are they in their position that this is all the money that we have for this particular thing?”
That’s easier said than done, of course, especially for cities facing drastic cuts. Buffalo lost $32.5 million in state aid and $18.4 million in revenue for this fiscal year, and the mayor’s latest budget proposal relies on $65.1 million in federal disaster relief funds that are not yet approved by Congress, according to the local nonprofit news site Investigative Post. Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s strategic planning office, says the city is doing its best to fund and move forward initiatives that make Buffalo more sustainable and equitable despite all the economic uncertainty.
“It’s never easy, but there was a sense of predictability that doesn’t exist quite as much anymore,” he says. “Like what the impact of initial federal money is, and is there is going to be additional federal money in the future? All of these things lead to this uncertainty. But there are still things moving forward — it’s not all bad news.”
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