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Climate Change: We Don’t Have 50 Years to Wait

Ignoring the impact of environmental threats on real estate has business—and moral—implications.

March - April
2019

Mudslides. Wildfires. Flooding. Rising sea levels. If your community has been affected by these or other climate-related events—and particularly if it has been hit multiple times—you know how important it is for the real estate community to be engaged in finding sustainability solutions. As 2019 chair of the National Association of REALTORS®’ Sustainability Advisory Group, I would like to begin a realistic conversation about climate change within our trade organization.

In recent weeks, I’ve reached out to dozens of REALTORS® to see if our members were experiencing negative effects on their business due to extreme weather events. The responses, by and large, confirmed my resolve to make sustainability a priority for our association. Particularly in coastal areas, members have told me both they and their clients are worried about declining property values and buyer interest. Some agents have left the business after storms ravaged their communities.

The intent here is not to politicize climate change. My belief is that the change is driven by carbon emissions produced by all of us. But whatever your beliefs about this issue and its cause, we have a duty to our clients and communities to raise awareness of how shifting climate patterns are affecting homes and the underlying land in vulnerable areas.

It is, of course, easier for the real estate industry to bury our heads in the sand than to consider how climate is affecting the mortgage, insurance, and, yes, the real estate sales businesses. I live just north of Boston; if the sea level rises nearly 40 inches by 2070 as the city anticipates, how will the mortgage industry respond to the inevitable stranded assets of homes and businesses that are no longer habitable? The 2018 National Climate Assessment, backed by 13 federal agencies, found that sea level rise might reshape the country’s population distribution, “with 13.1 million people potentially at risk of needing to migrate due to a [sea level rise] of 6 feet . . . by the year 2100.”

Our association has been involved in a years-long effort to ensure that flood insurance remains affordable and accessible to our clients in flood-prone areas. NAR has done a heroic job of advocating for the preservation of the National Flood Insurance Program, but our own policy statements acknowledge that the NFIP isn’t sustainable over the long term as currently structured. I believe we benefit, and our clients benefit, when we engage fully in discussing other solutions, including efforts to relocate people from the most vulnerable areas.

This topic isn’t important only to real estate professionals on the coasts, but those areas seem particularly vulnerable. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Pennsylvania State University compared properties that are similar except for their proximity to the sea and found that the more exposed homes sold for 6.6 percent less than the others during the sample period from 2007 to 2016.

If you think the way I do, you want to do more than give up plastic straws and bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Let’s get behind industry solutions that reduce energy consumption. In the new--construction industry, advances in building science over the last decade show us that net-zero-energy homes can be built cost-effectively. I know that this is the case because I have sold them. In a recent NAR survey, roughly two-thirds of REALTORS® said buyers or sellers they’ve worked with have expressed an interest in sustainability. The 2019 data will be available at nar.realtor/sustainability in April.

Our association did an amazing job last year of commemorating 50 years of the Fair Housing Act. As part of that commemoration, we took a huge step, acknowledging that we were once on the wrong side of the fair housing debate. As I see it, we can’t afford to be on the wrong side of history on climate change.

Craig Foley
LAER Realty Partners in Greater Boston

Craig Foley is the founder of Sustainable Real Estate Consulting Services, a LEED Green Associate, and chief sustainability officer for LAER Realty Partners in Greater Boston. He can be reached at CFoley@laerrealty.com.

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