Harvard Study: Over 18 Million Rental Units Face Climate Risks Amid Increasing Extreme Weather

Renters Vulnerable as Climate Hazards Escalate, Highlighting Urgent Need for Resilience

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As extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, renters in the United States are increasingly vulnerable to climate-related hazards, according to a comprehensive study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The report reveals that more than 18 million rental units across the nation are exposed to a spectrum of climate and weather-related risks, including wildfires, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, and more. By analyzing data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index and the American Community Survey, researchers identified areas with anticipated annual economic losses from environmental hazards, underscoring the pervasive threat to rental housing.

Sophia Wedeen, a research analyst at the Joint Center for Housing Studies, emphasized the urgency of addressing the vulnerability of the rental housing stock. With the rental market grappling with aging infrastructure ill-equipped to withstand escalating climate risks, renters face heightened exposure to environmental hazards.

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The severity of climate-related challenges was underscored by a record-breaking year in 2023, which witnessed 28 weather and climate disasters causing over $1 billion in damages each, totaling $92.9 billion in adjusted costs, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications research for First Street Foundation, highlighted the increasing frequency of climate disruptions, with damages increasingly affecting inhabited areas.

Alarmingly, the scope of flood risks in the United States may be significantly underestimated, with research from First Street Foundation suggesting that twice as many properties face flood risks compared to FEMA estimates. Despite this, flood insurance mandates only cover properties within official flood zones, leaving a substantial portion of rental units vulnerable to financial loss in the event of flooding.

The study also sheds light on the disproportionate impact of climate hazards on vulnerable populations, including renters in manufactured housing, low-rent, or subsidized units. These communities often lack the financial means to relocate or fortify their dwellings against environmental risks, exacerbating existing affordability challenges.

To address these pressing issues, experts stress the need for greater investment in the resilience of rental housing stock and upgrades to mitigate damage from climate-related hazards. Without substantial intervention, the risk of displacement and uninhabitable units will persist, perpetuating the cycle of vulnerability for renters.

While renters may feel powerless in the face of climate risks, experts advise proactive measures to protect themselves. Securing renters’ insurance to safeguard personal possessions and conducting thorough research on climate risks before moving to a new area are crucial steps renters can take to mitigate the impact of climate hazards on their housing security. Additionally, renters should advocate for greater transparency from landlords regarding property risks and explore options for comprehensive insurance coverage tailored to climate risks.