Health

Home of Uncertainty: The costs of climate change hit housing

Ed. Note: This is the first of a two-part series how climate change affects housing affordability and efforts to address those challenges. It is part of a year-long partnership between Gambit and the Solutions Journalism Network. Part 2 will run in the July 20 issue of Gambit.

It was 117 degrees in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest late last month. A few days later, an entire town in British Columbia was nearly wiped off the map when it was hit by an eerie phenomenon known as “fire clouds” and wildfires. Not to be outdone, the Gulf of Mexico then caught on fire when a pipeline ruptured.

We’re well past the point of recognizing that climate change is not only real, but having an impact on our daily lives. Even the most well-greased petrochemical lobbyists understand this, even if it’s only when they fall asleep on beds made of money. Save for the cluster of billionaires who have the comfort of knowing they can launch themselves into outer space, the rest of us are feeling the effects in our wallets and in our homes.

“People are already paying for climate change,” says Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer advocate nonprofit for utility customers.

In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the United States experienced a record-high 22 weather- and climate-related catastrophes, each one costing at least $1 billion — ranging from West Coast wildfires to deadly winter storms in Texas and a slew of hurricanes that pummeled the South. 



DOTD crews use a giant vacuum to unclog a drain along Claiborne Avenue following major flooding on July 10, 2019.




The everyday costs of climate change are harder to quantify — how much do your power bills go up because of more usage, versus the cost of supply to the company, or just simple corporate greed? But there is no doubt we all are feeling them, especially when it comes to housing where everything from heating bills to insurance to rent is constantly on the rise.

And for people facing housing challenges, those costs can be deadly. For example, residents in poorer neighborhoods deal with higher temperatures from “heat islands.”

“Being exposed to prolonged high temperatures can make people not just uncomfortable but it can have a negative effect on everything from their ability to breathe to their cognitive abilities,” says Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “So higher temperatures have a variety of health consequences for individuals — and that means consequences for the public as a whole.”


South Louisiana, of course, has long been on the forefront of climate change, with its shrinking coastline and constant storms — and its politicians’ hospitable embrace of petrochemical companies that exacerbate its problems. It’s a time-honored summertime tradition that has ramped up recently: Year after year, New Orleanians brace themselves for extreme weather events, like hurricanes, flooding and soaring temperatures that send us inside to spoon with our overworked air conditioning units bracing for high power bills.

In June alone, NOLA Ready, the city’s office of emergency preparedness and response, issued six warnings of potential floods in low-lying areas and one “excessive heat” warning, plus another for a tropical storm. And while this puts all of us on edge, it is especially dangerous for some of the city’s most vulnerable, low-income residents.



cold weather kills trees bruh

A stand of banana trees slowly melt away after a hard freeze killed most the the sensitive vegetation around New Orleans.




After winter storms that devastated Texas and parts of Louisiana drove up demand for more power in February, Burke points out Entergy Louisiana, the corporation that supplies much of the state with power, increased its rates for several months by up to 10%. That’s not as bad as Texas, where the lack of regulations had customers paying utility bills in the thousands of dollars, but it’s nonetheless an added strain on people who were already struggling from the past year of COVID-19 shutdowns and related financial woes.

Extreme weather events compound housing insecurity, which in New Orleans has been a particular challenge for those lower incomes and who tend to live in lower-lying areas more prone to flooding. New Orleans’ poverty rate, according to a Data Center report from last year, is 23.8% — much higher than the national rate of 10.5% as determined by the U.S. Census.

Plus, roughly half of New Orleans residents live in rental units, and many renters are considered cost- burdened, meaning they spend at least 30% of their income on housing, and tenants have very few rights when it comes to spurious eviction notices.

“We desperately need more housing across the country,” says Dr. Kristy Dahl, a San Francisco-based senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We don’t necessarily think of climate change and housing availability being connected, but in many cases, they are because the climate factors into decisions about where people will live, and the housing affordability determines where people are able to afford to live.”

Another leading climate change expert, architecture associate professor Jesse Keenan at Tulane University, points out the tradeoffs can also be dire when people are thinking about what they can and can’t afford.



Tulane architecture Jesse Keenan.jpg

Climate change scholar Jesse M. Keenan




“There are people making decisions on whether to pay their A/C bills vs. [buying] food,” he says. “That’s a real thing.

“New Orleans is extremely poor, and there’s not a lot of new housing production,” Keenan says bluntly. “There are a lot of people who live in very poor-quality houses, which has public health implications, like moisture in the walls and mold can lead to asthma. There’s other dimensions, too.”


Problems stemming from climate change are multi-faceted. In some cases, they are physically evident and destructive to property, like hurricanes or even mid-afternoon floods from a quick downpour. But they can also be more furtive and harder to monitor — like poor air quality from pollution and rising carbon emissions, or extreme temperatures that can lead to sicknesses and death.

This past spring, Keenan joined a panel of stakeholders and business leaders and found himself in the midst of an existential discussion about the future of the real estate industry.

A moderator posed the question to the group: “How many of you think New Orleans will be around in 50 years?” and roughly half the room raised their hands. “Then he asked, ‘What about 75?’ and not a single person raised their hand,” Keenan recalls.

Psychologically, it’s hard to comprehend, and it’s expensive to make long-term investments into infrastructure that can help cities withstand the onslaught of extreme weather. Dahl, the scientist in California, points out this is a nationwide issue and says cities absolutely need to consider affordable housing when it comes to climate change resilience plans.

“People will likely be moving at increasing rates, so thinking about where they can head and how we can help them land on their feet will be an important component of being climate-resilient in the future,” she says.  



Cashauna Hill

Cashauna Hill




Hill, who heads the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, echoes that sentiment, and points out there are also racial disparities.

In the largely tourism driven economy of New Orleans, where many workers struggle to earn a decent living wage — particularly in communities of color — there are additional burdens from skyrocketing rent and demand for housing outstripping the supply. Plus, the federal eviction moratorium, put in place because of COVID-19 shutdowns, is expected to end July 31, creating even more insecurity.



starbucks employee

Climate change is even wreaking havoc on our sense of fashion.




“What we know is that disaster and the risk from disaster is absolutely fueling Black displacement in the city of New Orleans,” Hill says. “What we need is for our politicians to be brave enough to call for significantly more dense, affordable housing built in high-ground neighborhoods. The high-ground neighborhoods are — across the board — majority white, affluent neighborhoods.”

Many of the housing issues that have kept these communities in more dangerous neighborhoods susceptible to climate change are deeply rooted in redlining — a practice that began in the 1930s when lower-income families were denied credit based on their race. Redlining built the city’s modern-day housing market, and the areas defined by its lines still suffer from its invention.



flooding on dorgenois street

A car is caught in street flooding during a heavy rain on N. Dorgenois St.




“Neighborhoods that were redlined continue to experience outcomes that are generally worse than the outcomes in neighborhoods that weren’t redlined,” Hill says.

Before Hurricane Katrina, however, there were several communities along the Mississippi River that were majority Black neighborhoods. But the most recent Census confirms that the demographics have drastically shifted. In her ongoing push to create more affordable housing opportunities and end housing discrimination, Hill says she’s encountered resistance and that her work to get more affordable housing developments into the city is an ongoing battle for many reasons.

Policymakers, she notes, are often swayed by neighborhood associations who she says push “false, racist narratives” about affordable housing developments into neighborhoods on higher ground.

“Nationwide, we continue to see white, wealthier homeowners using racial stereotypes adamantly opposing new, affordable housing developments in gentrifying neighborhoods,” she says. “It would be great if we could try something different and not fall into those same patterns.”


Flooding is one of the biggest ongoing threats New Orleans faces, but extreme heat and heat islands also take a toll on residents — and those can be deadly.

Heat islands are areas that experience higher temperatures than nearby spots, most often due to a lack of vegetation and permeable surfaces because buildings, roads and paved surfaces absorb and trap heat. 

Earlier this year, ISeeChange, a climate data and dialogue platform whose app tracks user submitted and public data, partnered with the New Orleans Health Department on gathering heat data from neighborhoods registering much higher than the city’s official temperature — which is measured in Kenner at the Louis Armstrong International Airport by the National Weather Service.  

Julia Kumari Drapkin, CEO of ISeeChange, told Gambit their sensor analysis identified areas in the city where there was at least a six-degree discrepancy and that the hotter neighborhoods were generally lower income or historically red-lined neighborhoods, like Hollygrove, Central City, Arabi and swaths of New Orleans East. ISeeChange matched the data to community stories about unsafe housing conditions, where residents documented indoor temperatures measured hotter than outdoors.

“Heat involves so many variables,” Drapkin says. “We’re impacted by heat specifically at the individual level because we feel it. But there are also all sorts of determinants of health, like the quality of home, the neighborhoods — many of which are products of structural racism and beyond. Flooding is the [issue] we talk about the most, but heat is a secret, invisible one, along with air quality.”



Kristin Gisleson Palmer

Kristin Gisleson Palmer




District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who has helped launch ongoing efforts to help mitigate heat islands by planting tree canopies throughout the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, notes, “Our infrastructure mirrors where our value system is. Trees reflect that. [We] don’t have as much of a tree canopy in neighborhoods that are economically disadvantaged.” 

Higher heat leads to more strain on air conditioners, and those living in poverty are more likely to have inefficient window units in poorly insulated homes instead of central air conditioning — which leads to costlier utility bills.

While Keenan mentioned that this can create a tough choice between paying bills or paying for food, Hill of the Fair Action Housing Center points out those same residents are also in need of stronger protection from being evicted for arbitrary reasons.

As someone who connects renters to attorneys, she says she gets calls daily from residents in at-risk neighborhoods with substandard housing, who often face threats of eviction if they so much as ask their landlords to repair air conditioners or clean up toxic mold that is exacerbated by humidity.

“We see this type of retaliation happen every day,” she says. “We also need to protect renters from landlord retaliation.”

“Health and safety protections [for renters] are among the worst in the country,” Drapkin of ISeeChange says. “Even if an entire building blows over, these [landlords] are still in business. There’s very little repercussions for that, and the conditions are pretty horrible.”


Mitigating the accelerating climate crisis as it relates to housing affordability involves “tradeoffs,” Keenan, the architecture professor, says. Shrinking land mass on the outskirts of the city eventually will push people to seek higher ground — which is more expensive.

“There’s no win-win,” he says. But he also sees opportunities in the next few years to begin further examining and fixing the pre-existing and worsening problems.

The Port of New Orleans relocating downriver, for example, could clear up land Uptown, which is on higher ground, and that could theoretically become an opportunity for more housing.

“A lot has to happen,” Keenan says. “Right now, we don’t have a plan. We’re making it up as we go. But we have a lot of people who live here, and if we want to be a city, we need a plan that brings everyone together.”

He sees it as a chance to implement inclusionary zoning and mixed-income housing.

But, he warns, “If you just let it turn into a bunch of towers for rich people to invest in, it’ll be a lost cause.”

Advocacy groups are also calling on lawmakers to create financial incentives for people to weatherize their homes, which would make them more affordable and storm-resistant.

Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy points out Louisiana once had more robust incentives to use solar paneling, for example. The incentives from the state have since dried up, though there are federal programs as well as rebates from certain companies upon installation.



Atkinson Burke

Alliance for Affordable Energy executive director Logan Atkinson Burke. 




State Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, plans on drafting legislation in the upcoming years to incentivize Louisianans to think more critically about using sustainable building materials and permeable surfaces to allow for quicker drainage. He hopes to earn bipartisan support by appealing to the financial benefits, and says it could draw in more environmentally friendly building companies to the state and create jobs.

“It’s a frustration that we are in the center of the coastal receding and bearing the brunt of these enhanced storms, year after year,” he says, “[yet] we’re not a leader on technology or processes that are used to offset the impact of climate change.”

Hill, meanwhile, is also calling for higher standards. “We can do things like create, at a local level, a basic health and safety standard [for housing],” she says, adding, “We know that building affordable housing and giving people access to safer neighborhoods can do nothing but benefit people and communities.”

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