Over 18 million rental units at risk from environmental hazards: Study

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Extreme weather and climate hazards are becoming more frequent, posing a threat not only for homeowners but for renters.

More than 18 million rental units across the U.S. are exposed to climate- and weather-related hazards, according to the latest American Rental Housing Report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Harvard researchers paired data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index with the five-year American Community Survey to find out what units are in the areas that are expected to have annual economic loss from environmental hazards such as wildfires, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and more. 

“The rental housing stock is the oldest it ever has been, and a lot of it is not suited for the growing frequency, severity and diversity in environmental hazards,” said Sophia Wedeen, research analyst focused on rental housing, residential remodeling and affordability at the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

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In 2023, there were 28 weather and climate disasters with damages totaling $1 billion or more, a record high, according to the latest report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. These weather disruptions collectively cost $92.9 billion in damages, an estimate adjusted for inflation, the agency found.  

“It’s clear that not only are climate hazards happening more often, but they’re happening more often in places where people live, which is why we’re seeing all of these damages increase over time,” said Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications research for First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization in New York.

In addition, about twice as many properties in the U.S. have flood risks than what FEMA accounts for, according to research by First Street Foundation.

And flood insurance is only mandated for properties inside official flood zones, Porter said.

“Half the properties across the country don’t know they have a flood risk, which means the building owner may not have flood insurance,” he said.

Some renters ‘can’t afford to move away from the risk’

At a national level, 45% of single-family rentals and 35% to 40% of units in small, midsize and large multifamily buildings are located in census tracts, or neighborhoods, that are exposed to annual losses from climate-related hazards, the Harvard study found.

Units with the highest risk are manufactured housing, such as mobile homes and RVs, said Wedeen. While they’re a smaller share of the rental stock, 52% of manufactured units are located in areas with extreme weather exposure. 

As the market already faces a declining supply of low-rent units available, “environmental hazards would really exacerbate the existing affordability concerns,” Wedeen said. 

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Over 18 million rental units at risk from environmental hazards: Study

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