A street with new construction home in a suburban housing development.
Image credit: Kirk Fisher on istock.com

“All of a sudden the rush is on,” Craig McFarland, mayor of Casa Grande, AZ, told NPR about his city’s growing need for workforce housing. With the increase of new industries in the area has come a flood of new construction; thousands of workers at a new car manufacturing plant, for example, need a place to live.

But Casa Grande is a city in a desert, and not having enough water to supply these new housing developments may stop construction before it’s even started. As NPR reported, “A two-decade drought in the Southwest has triggered cutbacks to Arizona’s water supply, as climate change strains the Colorado River, one of the state’s biggest water sources.” For several years, according to NPR, regulators have not been able to guarantee a water supply for new subdivisions in Casa Grande. That’s now happening in nearby Phoenix as well.

One of the challenges of climate change is that it does not impact the world and its inhabitants equally.

Climate change has made water access even more precious. In other areas of the country and around the world, wildfires threaten more and more homes while other places must combat floods and severe storms.

Amid varying and escalating environmental crises, is new construction keeping up with the pace of climate change—or should it even try? Should some land simply be left undeveloped, and how can towns keep their residents without placing them in harm’s way?

Climate Change’s Unequal Impacts

One of the challenges of climate change is that it does not impact the world and its inhabitants equally. People living in poverty face greater fallout from climate change, as do people of color, Indigenous communities, and people with disabilities, who are four times more likely to die in disasters than people who do not have a disability.

Climate change also disproportionately affects different areas of the world. Island nations are extremely vulnerable. Earlier in 2023, NPQ reported about a landmark case where multiple small island nations argued before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that bigger countries should be held responsible for polluting beyond their borders. As NPQ wrote, “These islands have been dealing with rising sea levels and storms increasing in size and frequency—effects of climate change which the islands allege have been worsened by the actions of much larger countries.”

In the United States, coastal states like Florida and South Carolina face the most climate change risks. According to Scientific American, “Almost all of the most vulnerable communities are located along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Ala., to Corpus Christi, Texas—a flood- and hurricane-prone region with deep pockets of poverty, poor health and economic and racial inequities.”

The Urgent Need for Housing

Safe housing is also a nationwide problem, and affordability continues to be a hurdle for many Americans.

Compounding the regional inequities of climate change, the American South needs housing. As reported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, “Of the 8.5 million renter households with worst case housing needs, the largest proportion lived in the South (3.17 million).” Due to the poverty of residents, the age of homes, and the destructive nature of storms and their lingering damage, including mold, some of these homes are in severe need of repair—or even uninhabitable, according to experts.

The Atlantic reported that, of the 135 million homes across the United States, “a surprisingly large portion of them pose threats to their residents: 30 million homes in the U.S. have serious health and safety hazards, such as gas leaks, damaged plumbing, and poor heating. About 6 million of those have structural problems. Another 6 million have lead paint.”

While the issue is urgent in the South, safe housing is also a nationwide problem, and affordability continues to be a hurdle for many Americans. With the median price for a home currently $391,800—a jump of 3.4 percent from 2022—homeownership is still out of reach for many households. “How many homes must the United States’ expensive coastal cities build to become affordable for middle-class and working-poor families again?” the Atlantic asked in another article.

“I don’t think developers and decision-makers are willing to acknowledge that we are living in a new era of extreme weather.”

A Burden on Local Governments

Despite the need for housing, is it simply too risky to build in areas of the country at highest risk for climate disaster? Local governments from wildfire-prone California to flooded coastal New Jersey to drought-stricken Arizona are asking themselves this question—and sometimes butting heads with construction companies and developers.

Nonprofits, like Preserve Wild Santee in California, are blocking developers who don’t take climate risks into consideration (and requiring them to come up with neighborhood evacuation plans), while Arizona requires a 100-year supply of water for any new subdivision, currently the only state in the country to do so. “It’s a consumer protection,” Casa Grande mayor McFarland told NPR.

As NPR reported, due to a lack of state regulations, it’s primarily these local governments who are tasked with limiting construction in climate disaster-prone zones—and protecting the homes already there. In 2020, Preserve Wild Santee and several other environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop a planned development of almost 3,000 houses in Santee, CA, in a valley at high risk for wildfires.

“I don’t think developers and decision-makers are willing to acknowledge that we are living in a new era of extreme weather and really grapple with what that means for the desire to build and build and build,” said Van Collinsworth, director of Preserve Wild Santee and a local resident.

After a judge agreed with the wildfire concerns of Preserve Wild Santee and the other groups, the housing project was shelved. It was proposed again in 2022 with a host of new stipulations that take into account the changing and dangerous climate. The housing development would have a clear evacuation plan in case of fire. Built of fire-resistant materials, the homes would have fire sprinklers and their exteriors would regularly be cleared of flammable vegetation. The development plan was approved this year with support from local fire officials.

Moving to Solid Ground

Due to its increased wildfire risk, California leads the country in fire prevention measures. Another state, New Jersey, is also providing a blueprint for the nation on how to be more climate-conscious in construction and development. The state is ranked sixth in the country for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings, a worldwide green building certification program, and its MetLife Stadium is considered an early leader in sustainability for NFL Stadiums.

But New Jersey’s popular shoreline faces an elevated risk of floods caused by climate change, and the state has been on a mission to protect residents and their houses for a decade, longer than many other parts of the country. A.R. Siders, a climate researcher at the University of Delaware, told NPR, “New Jersey is very proactive,” including restricting construction in high flood-risk zones—a move that came after the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Along with upholding some of the nation’s strongest flood disclosure laws, New Jersey requires home renovations in flood-risk zones to include stipulations like moving air conditioners off the ground or putting homes on stilts. Towns also have supported home buyouts through programs that purchase houses at fair market prices simply to demolish them and ensure no new homes are built on such risky ground.

One of those towns is Woodbridge, NJ, where over 180 residents accepted buyouts and moved away. New homes are being built strategically in places closer to the center of town on solid ground, where it is less flood prone. According to NPR, “The town’s population is stable, and its economy is growing.”

In the face of increasing climate change disasters, such a shift in construction design—and the location of homes—may be what places need to do to survive. As Woodbridge mayor John McCormac told NPR about the buyouts and the decision to divert new construction, “[It’s] not something we wanted to do, but we had to do it. We didn’t want to lose residents.”