March 01, 2023
In the Future Actions section of the California Coastal Commission’s Draft Sustainability Principles, the commission needs to consider the housing crisis contained within its purview and beyond the coastal regions. Researchers at Arizona State University estimate between 4.3 million and 8.7 million Californians live in areas threatened by sea level rise. A managed retreat of a population that size, even at a pace slower than, say, the displacement of a population due to a wildfire or hurricane, would exacerbate existing housing issues and increase burdens not just within the coastal region but on communities outside the coastal region in ways we cannot currently imagine.
The theory of collective risk management that dictates municipal efforts to plan for the impacts of climate change applies presently to communities facing climate-related hazards. But my research on wildfires in Northern California found that risks extend to communities beyond the reach of these hazards. For example, disasters exacerbate the effects of housing instability for survivors and residents of surrounding communities.
I believe the commission already knows California is facing a housing crisis. Additional evidence is unnecessary to show that property holders in the state’s coastal regions tend to be high-wage earners. Even in an affluent county such as Orange, the average median value of owner-occupied housing for coastal cities ($1,106,375) between 2017-2021 was 53 percent higher than in Orange County’s inland cities ($720,183). For the coastal cities, that is a rough estimate because the median value of housing for two of Orange County’s cities, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, is shown in Census data as $2,000,000+. Under managed retreat of coastal areas, some property holders might choose to leave the state. But many elements tie residents to an area, from economic factors like jobs to social factors like family, networks, and a sense of place. A situation where high-income earners are pushed into an already competitive housing market would disproportionately affect the middle and lower classes, who already can barely afford to live in California. Low-income earners are tied to an area much for the same reasons as high-income earners, but in a managed retreat of coastal cities, we would see these populations pushed farther to the periphery. More competition in the housing market would push these populations away from their jobs, support networks, and homes.
In the history of disasters in the United States, hurricanes have given us the clearest picture of what involuntary migration and resettlement on a massive scale would look like. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hurricane Katrina displaced 1 million residents, forever reshaping the city of New Orleans and smaller communities along the Gulf Coast. Thankfully, sea level rise happens at a much slower pace than a hurricane. This slower pace gives the commission time to strengthen another core component of the collective risk management paradigm: perception. Sea level rise is a threat to coastal communities and the entire state and its neighbors. Climate-related disasters have a long reach, affecting society in ways we haven’t yet quantified. But we know how they interact with the housing crisis, and we have witnessed how detrimental the effects can be. The commission must work with the Department of Housing and Community Development and other relevant state institutions to plan for a worst-case scenario. And part of that planning includes changing public perception at the state level, not just with the coastal communities.
The signs are in front of us. Now is the time for action.
Center for Economic and Policy Research
 Data comes from 2017-2021 ACS 5-year estimates. Coastal cities in the analysis include San Juan Capistrano, Costa Mesa, Seal Beach, San Clemente, Huntington Beach, Dana Point, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach. Inland cities include Yorba Linda, Brea, Placenta, Santa Ana, Orange, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Irvine, Fullerton, Buena Park, Anaheim, and Aliso Viejo.