Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
Renovations Have Become an Essential Tool for Living with Climate Change
Disasters are already spurring Americans to renovate their homes.
Home remodeling is something of an American subculture. Shows like Property Brothers, Fixer Upper, and Flip or Flop have sold us on the glamour, the righteousness, even, of taking hammers and drills and panels of drywall to old houses and making them appealing to Brooklynites with babies, replete with stainless steel and minimalist tiling. All that work doesn’t come cheap: The remodeling industry, as of 2021, is a $500 billion juggernaut.
But remodeling is good for more than just aesthetics: It’s also, increasingly, becoming an essential tool for living with the effects of climate change.
According to a new study from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), Americans are spending more money on repairing houses that were damaged by disasters — between $20 and $25 billion in 2020 and 2021, up from an average of $17 billion in the 2010s and $12 billion in the 2000s. These huge sums alone indicate the increasing toll disasters are taking on Americans; both 2020 and 2021 saw at least 20 so-called “billion-dollar disasters,” or single disasters that caused damages north of a billion dollars each.
“Historically, people focused on improving their homes,” said Carlos Martín, project director of the Remodeling Futures program at JCHS. Take, for example, the stainless steel and crisp tiling: They’re primarily aesthetic improvements that might bring some side benefits, like energy-efficiency. “What we're seeing now is that it's almost an even balance [between upkeep and improvements],” Martín said. “More people are doing repairs just to keep up their homes.”
In part, this is just because American housing stock is the oldest it’s ever been: As of 2021, the median age of owner-occupied homes in the country is 41 years old, and they’re starting to show their age. As extreme weather becomes more common, however, those repairs will be even more pressing; a well-maintained home will be better insulated against the forces of nature, whether they be headline-grabbing hurricanes and wildfires or the more quotidian snow, hail, or wind that is responsible for nearly half of the money spent on repairs in 2020 and 2021.
The problem (surprise!) is money. Remodeling is expensive, and while policies like the Inflation Reduction Act will help homeowners pay for climate-mitigation upgrades like heat pumps that will reduce household emissions, there’s no policy analogue for disaster-mitigating upgrades. Homeowners usually only receive assistance after a disaster hits, in the form of insurance payouts.
“Unfortunately, our climate policy is disaster policy in this country,” Martín said.
American housing is already deeply inequitable, and the cost of preparing for — or repairing after — a disaster only deepens that inequity. Households of color make up only 27 percent of all the homeowners in the country, and they tend to be less able to pay for renovations: according to the report, white homeowners have nearly three times as much median wealth as Black homeowners and nearly double the wealth of Hispanic homeowners.
These disparities are dominoes: Lower-income homeowners tend to only be able to purchase homes that are already in a less-than-ideal state, which drives up the cost of repairs. This leaves them more vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, which can send repair costs even higher.
The result is that, more often than not, homeowners just wait and see if a disaster hits — and if it does, to rely on insurance payments to rebuild. This can sometimes mean their homes are repaired to a higher standard, using new materials that weren’t around before or, if they were entirely destroyed in a disaster, built to new codes that may include better hardening against storms.
This is, of course, not a solution at all, for the simple fact that it forces people to wait until their home is destroyed to have a chance at ... preventing their home from being destroyed. And, because insurance companies are insurance companies, most homeowners — particularly if they’re not rich and lawyered up — have to wait interminably long to have their claims paid out. Houstonians, for example, are stillrebuilding after the damage caused to their city by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Some privately-administered incentives for disaster preparedness do exist, usually in the form of insurance companies offering lowered premiums for making changes such as installing storm shutters or raising houses in hurricane-prone areas. But those upgrades still come with large upfront costs, and the programs aren’t available everywhere.
People also tend to underestimate their personal risk, which means they undervalue the benefits of mitigating that risk. They might be willing to invest in electrification and energy-efficiency upgrades, such as a heat pump, new refrigerator, or an electric vehicle, because those products have a dual use: They lower the climate impact of a household while also providing an increased level of comfort for its inhabitants. Disaster-proofing, however, only proves its worth when disasters hit. Flood insurance is a classic example: Insurance companies see an uptick in flood insurance sign-ups in the immediate aftermath of floods hitting a region, but policyholders tend to drop their coverage if there are no floods for a few years.
As extreme weather becomes more common, this might be less of an issue. “If these events are more frequent, people will realize there‘s a benefit,” Martín said. “Just because then they don’t have to wait two or three years, or for their insurance to kick in. They’ll see the immediate benefit.”
That makes creating policies to fund preventative remodeling — an IRA for disaster-proofing, essentially — even more pressing; as the most recent IPCC report made clear, the world needs to both acknowledge and prepare for the effects of climate change while still trying to reduce emissions.
Martín also thinks the country is badly in need of a national conversation about property insurance akin to the health care shifts we saw a little over a decade ago with the implementation of Obamacare. One way to start is by establishing a framework that would incentivize insurance companies to help defray the costs of protecting homes; doing so now would inevitably reduce the downstream costs for government, insurance companies, and homeowners alike.
It would also provide a way to preserve the deep-rooted relationships people have with the places they call home. While it’s easy to just tell people to move away from disaster-prone areas, that does little to acknowledge the realities of how people live — or the fact that climate change is going to affect every place on the planet in different ways, and some of the best adaptation measures will be found within the places we live and work.
“There are lots of other climate effects,” Martín said. “Flooding from sea level rise or hurricanes is only one effect. You can't build a seawall for heat.”