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Cities That Were Poised to Absorb Climate Migrants Face a New Challenge - CityLab

As hurricanes and wildfires accelerate climate migration, U.S. cities that were dubbed “climate havens” face drastic financial shortfalls after Covid-19.

As climate change makes more places unlivable over the next few decades, experts are urging those cities that are spared from the worst to prepare to absorb displaced residents.


But if cities weren’t prepared for a population influx before, many will be even less prepared now, after the pandemic has decimated city revenues and disrupted longer-term initiatives. Some of the cities facing the steepest projected losses are so-called climate havens, places whose geographic location, infrastructure and excess land space are supposed to make them particularly well suited to take in climate migrants.


Buffalo, New York, which has been dubbed a climate haven both by experts and city leaders, stands to lose nearly 20% of its revenue because of its heavy reliance on tourism dollars and state aid. Buffalo and its Western New York neighbors that could also absorb climate migrants, Rochester and Syracuse, together face the worst revenue prospects after Covid of any U.S. cities, according to a recent New York Times analysis. And Duluth, Minnesota, another climate-change destination, is facing a roughly $12 million budget shortfall, even after laying off some city staff and slashing spending in multiple departments.


These kinds of projected shortfalls present a range of challenges to cities’ futures. But a potential population influx makes them that much more challenging, as hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves prompt more Americans to consider moving elsewhere.


Without a lifeline from the national government, cities could make significant spending cuts on infrastructure, public safety programs and affordable housing as they scramble to fulfill immediate needs, according to an analysis from the National League of Cities. “The revisions and budget proposals that are coming forward are trying to identify what the essential services are, to ensure that they continue,” says Vivek Shandas, an urban planning professor at Portland State University, who wasn’t involved with the NLC report.


Experts like Shandas have argued that climate haven cities should focus on expanding their stock of high-density affordable housing. Without these kinds of proactive steps, cities with the best conditions could become havens only for the rich, exacerbating inequality. But in many of these places, money set aside for affordable housing development has been diverted to funding shelters, mortgage and rental assistance, and other emergency programs to stave off evictions. That means city and state programs subsidizing housing are getting gutted, further delaying the construction and upkeep of much-needed low-cost homes, while materials shortages make ongoing projects more expensive. The consequences could last well beyond the pandemic; as CityLab reported in June, affordable housing production “could be hamstrung for a generation.”


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