For rent: Calif. houses endangered by rising seas

By Anne C. Mulkern | 09/24/2021 05:40 AM EST

Waves roll close to homes in Malibu, Calif. State lawmakers passed a program to buy properties threatened by climate change. AP Photo/John Antczak

California is poised to launch a groundbreaking program to buy vulnerable beachfront houses that could be rented out until rising ocean levels make them too dangerous to live in.

The move comes as state officials look for ways to move homeowners away from areas threatened by the effects of climate change, a strategy known as managed retreat. The voluntary measure, passed recently by the state Legislature, would create a low-interest loan fund that could be used by coastal municipalities to buy homes endangered by ocean flooding or collapsing cliffs.

Money raised by renting them could be used to repay the loans, and cover the cost of eventually tearing them down and restoring the beach.

Supporters see it as a politically acceptable way to begin managed retreat so beaches can migrate landward as sea levels rise.

"Frequent record-breaking weather events remind us that the impacts of climate change are imminent, especially when it comes to sea-level rise," said state Sen. Ben Allen (D), who wrote the bill, S.B. 83. "Coastal cities and counties are facing impossible choices over how much of their already stretched public resources to spend fighting the sea.”

The measure, which is waiting for the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), will offer local governments with a voluntary financing tool, he said, to help manage sea-level rise impacts. There were no official opponents to the measure, which had bipartisan support.

A 2017 analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey found that rising seas imperil California’s famed beaches. Higher tides could swallow up to two-thirds of Southern California’s sandy coastline by the turn of the century, unless there’s human intervention to stop it. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that up to $10 billion of existing properties in California are likely to be underwater by midcentury.

This isn’t the first time that governments will buy disaster-prone houses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought out flood-damaged properties in states across the U.S. But a program to buy homes years before they’re damaged is believed to be unprecedented.

If Newsom signs the bill, the state’s Ocean Protection Council will develop rules for the program to determine if a home could recoup enough in rent to pay back the loan. Many coastal homes in California sell for millions of dollars.

The measure tells OPC to look at whether acquiring the property could provide public benefits, such as replacing the home with dunes or other natural infrastructure that could blunt the effects of rising seas. OPC must release those details by 2023.

Then it’s up to cities to decide if they want to apply for the money. To qualify, they must first show they’re part of a local or regional plan to address sea-level rise impacts.

Step toward managed retreat

Efforts to cope with climate impacts on beaches have created tension between coastal cities and state agencies. Wealthy beachfront homeowners have protested measures by the California Coastal Commission to prevent the construction of sea walls, which the agency says can "drown" beaches.

The Coastal Commission supports the buy-to-rent program.

"This is an innovative approach to an intractable problem and it is the first actual tangible action California has contemplated doing on managed retreat," said Noaki Schwartz, a spokesperson for the commission. "Currently, we have situations where homeowners are dealing with sea-level rise by building unpermitted sea walls, which accelerates loss of public beaches. The hope is that this program would encourage coastal property owners to become willing partners in adaptation planning for the greater good."

It’s unclear how much appetite exists for the loans. Some coastal cities and their homeowners are hesitant to talk about managed retreat, or even acknowledge that rising oceans are impacting their homes, said Matt O’Malley, executive director and managing attorney with San Diego Coastkeeper.

"But there’s no way we can just keep armoring the coast," he said, adding that "it’s a losing battle."

"So at some point you have to talk about different strategies."

O’Malley said he believes eventually some homeowners might want to sell their homes because "as sea level rises, people are going to want to try and get some value out of their home.”

It’s unclear how much money will be available for the program. The Ocean Protection Council can recommend funding levels, though it’s not mandated. An aide for Allen, the bill’s author, said the lawmaker will examine spending needs after seeing how much interest exists from coastal cities.

Alyssa Mann, coastal project director with the Nature Conservancy, said the program is "not going to facilitate buying up property all up and down the coast."

"But I think it will provide really important opportunities to do it in really strategic locations where there could be a really big benefit for the community," Mann said, adding that there are locations "where we have a few decades, or a decade, to be able to plan more practically, and find locations."

Helping the wealthy?

California has some of the most expensive real estate in the country, especially in beach cities.

But aides for Allen, the bill’s author, said not all coastal areas in California are wealthy. The measure also could be used to buy agricultural property.

"Rich or poor, no one deserves to lose their home to sea level rise," an Allen aide said in an email. "This issue affects the entirety [of] California’s coastline, including communities up in Humboldt County or down to San Diego like Chula Vista. And it’s not even just the coastline. Sea level rise is causing subsidence in surrounding communities that aren’t coastal … leading to flooding, saltwater intrusion, infrastructure damage, and more."

While some of the homes will be expensive, the aide said, "not all of them will be, and cities need more tools to address this issue now."

The state could also see a future where insurance companies refuse to cover properties and banks won’t provide mortgages, the aide said. In that scenario, all taxpayers could be asked to cover the cost "when the flood water is at our doorstep."

Schwartz with the California Coastal Commission noted that residents in places like Oxnard, Imperial Beach, Oakland and unincorporated communities on the north coast of the state "will be directly impacted by sea-level rise and may have fewer options for relocation. This program would be available to those coastal homeowners as well, provided their local governments participate in the program."

A few cities supported the measure, including Santa Monica, and a group representing cities south of Los Angeles, like Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach.

Doug Krauss, environmental programs manager with Hermosa Beach, said his city hasn’t yet looked at the concept of buying homes. Hermosa Beach has a wide beach, he said, and none of the oceanfront homes are threatened right now.

"We’re just kind of waiting and seeing where it goes," Krauss said of the measure. "We’re only kind of involved in some of our first climate adaptation studies. … We’re just kind of on the initial learning curve of it all before we even know what the realities are, what to expect in the future" and "what properties would be vulnerable, if any."