While most of his neighbors don’t worry that global warming could slash housing prices, land-use attorney Sam Poole has already developed a plan to sell his house in a low-lying Fort Lauderdale, Fla., neighborhood.
Poole has heard some scientists predict that the first financial effects are probably two decades away, and he wants to sell in about 10 years, well before panic sets in, assuming governments do nothing quickly to combat climate change.
“I don’t want to wait too long,” he said.
In fact, some scientists project the first effects are one decade away, not two. But Poole’s concern about sea level remains a rarity among homeowners in South Florida, where property values continue to boom in waterfront neighborhoods.
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There are hints, however, that the real-estate industry is preparing for change.
Len Berry, director of Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Florida Center for Environmental Studies, reports developers have quietly contacted the university to check out projections of how much sea level will rise in the coming decades as they look for future safe investments.
William Hardin, a professor of real estate at Florida International University, said he’s telling students, “If you truly believe in global warming, you’re going to have an issue being in real estate in South Florida.”
Jason King, with the Dover Kohl urban-planning group in Coral Gables, Fla., said the firm’s planners are factoring in changing sea level in work with developers.
King reports mortgage lenders “are following the discussions very closely,” as are many others in real estate. “I can tell you they’re aware,” said King.
The financial stakes are high. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a joint effort of four county governments, calculates the area could lose as much as $4 billion in taxable real estate with a 1-foot rise in sea level.
At 3 feet, the loss could be $31 billion — escalating from there, perhaps at an accelerating pace unless governments or the private sector act to reduce carbon and other gases warming the water and atmosphere that in turn melts the ice caps and causes sea levels to rise.
At 3 feet, much of South Florida is under water.
“But a lot of land is lost at 6 inches,” said Nicole Hernandez Hammer, program manager of the Climate Change Initiative at FAU.
Hernandez Hammer is amazed developers don’t appear to worry about rising seas. “Look at Sunny Isles, with those giant cranes, building these lavish structures that are essentially at sea level.”
Scientists and real-estate experts debate what might spark buyers to start devaluing waterfront property.
Some believe it could be a gradual decline — as people become fed up with increased neighborhood flooding. Others, including many leading scientists, believe that a huge hurricane could send the area reeling — or perhaps it could be a crisis in insurance markets.
Architect and planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk envisions slowly rising water levels draining city resources — “much like happened in the Rust Belt,” where bankrupt cities like Detroit cannot deal with massive problems.
Congressional legislation last year required major increases in flood-insurance premiums, which for decades have been subsidized. That means ground-level homes in the Keys could see their premiums increased from $2,500 to $30,000, reports the Florida Keynoter newspaper — costs that could quickly drop real-estate prices.
Hardin said in the long run it might make sense for insurance to gradually reflect the real costs of building in areas likely to be flooded as sea levels rise.
As it is now, so many are complaining about rising premiums that Congress is thinking of rolling back the increases.
If that happens, said Poole, it would be another example of the government subsidizing waterfront properties when it should be discouraging them.
Plantation, Fla., attorney Mitchell Chester warns that property sellers could eventually be sued if they don’t warn prospective buyers — “starting now” — that the property is endangered by rising sea level.
“That’s interesting,” said Jill Hertzberg, a leading Miami Beach real-estate agent, “but exactly what should I be telling clients?”