Time to stop shoring up oceanfront homes

Beaches around the world are in a steady state of erosion, and one of the most immediate costs for people is the loss of oceanfront homes, whether located on the beach or on cliffs that tower over it. These losses are economically catastrophic, and the cost of dealing with them is going to increase in the coming years thanks to the factors that are accelerating the rate of erosion. Obviously, climate change is a huge issue, as it’s causing increases in sea level as well as abnormal weather patterns. Additionally, artificial changes to the landscape — like the removal of wetlands — are changing the way the water moves and altering the landscape.

Numerous wealthy communities are using beach nourishment in an attempt to maintain popular beaches and ensure that their homes don’t fall into the sea, often at great cost to low-income communities. The tactic involves building artificial sandbars, trucking in gravel and sand, installing berms, and much more to control the movement of water around vulnerable areas. This is very expensive, and it’s going to get pricier, because the problem will get bigger. Notably, most waterfront homes belong to extremely wealthy people — the number of working class and low-income communities directly on the shore is getting smaller due to shifting demographics. The largest exception is likely some fishing communities, but even in those settings, the docks and nearby area are typically occupied with industrial and commercial structures, not homes — though they too are vulnerable to the ravages of erosion.

Here’s the thing: At a certain point, we need to step back, perform some cost/benefit, and decide when it’s time to cut our losses. This includes triaging responses to climate change, and subsidising the lifestyles of the wealthy should not be high on our priority list. If they want to live on the oceanfront, they should bear the cost. That may include increased insurance premiums because of the higher risks, or exclusionary coverage that doesn’t cover certain types of damage. It may include needing to move homes or add architectural elements to protect them from the worst of the waves. It may include reinforcing cliffs, adding levees, and any number of other things. It’s reasonable to ask for some civil engineering to protect communities, but when it comes down to investing substantial resources in keeping rich communities happy, we have a problem.

It’s time to stop shoring up oceanfront homes, and especially to stop awarding compensation to wealthy people who lose structures in heavy storms and as a result of erosion. Sure, evaluate communities on an individual basis to determine when compensation and relocation assistance is warranted because people are rendered homeless by climate change, and need assistance and support to locate and secure new housing. But don’t sink millions, or billions, into fighting with the environment in areas where it’s clearly a losing battle, only a handful of people benefit, and most of those people can absorb the cost and/or have alternate places to move, without too much difficulty.

Wealthy people build big houses and they like large lots. Investing in keeping their homes from sliding down cliffs is really not efficient — low-income and working class communities build dense, returning more bang for your buck when it comes to using limited government funds on rehabilitation efforts to keep structures upright and either replace or repair condemned homes and apartment buildings. Fixing a chunk of coastline for the benefit of ten mansions seems far less important that addressing the residents of 50, or 100, homes who may be displaced if immediate environmental threats aren’t recognised — whether that means rebuilding their homes or moving them to a location that’s less subject to environmental problems.

We created climate change, and we are reaping what we sowed. One of the costs is the global coastline, which has changed forever as a result of our environmental practices. While shorelines are always subject to a constant push and pull, that has accelerated, and wealthy governments need to decide how they want to use their money. The ocean is always going to win in the end, and there comes a point when resource expenditure enters the land of the absurd, at times becoming almost actively offensive when contrasted with a community’s needs.

Communities with substantial encampments of wealthy people on their beaches, cliffs, and headlands need to be having some hard conversations about how to proceed in the coming years. It’s an unfair allocation of taxpayer dollars to repeatedly attempt to fight erosion at a site where it’s never going to stop, rather than refocusing funds on more productive activities like investing in smart development policy, including securing safer and more appropriate land for development and relocation, in the case of people who are losing their homes to the sea.

More and more mansions are going to slip down the cliffs and headlands of the US, while homes on the beach are battered and dismantled by the waves. That’s how it always has been and always will be, even though those numbers are increasing. The way to deal with that is not to pretend that throwing money and civil engineering at the problem will solve it — we are past controlling the damage that caused it, past repairs that might fix it, and on to adapting to the new world we have created for ourselves. Or at least, we should be, if municipalities would start doing the right thing.

Image: Four Houses, Nags Head, NC, Jay Kleeman, Flickr