Altering mortgages to account for climate change threats

A new Federal Reserve report considers how the consequences of climate change might affect mortgages:

The housing market doesn’t yet factor in the risk of climate change, which is already affecting many areas of the U.S., including flood-prone coastal communities, agricultural regions and parts of the country vulnerable to wildfires. In California, for instance, 50,000 homeowners can’t get property or casualty insurance because of the increased risk to their homes.

Yet for now, no mortgage lender, portfolio manager or buyer of mortgages takes into account climate-induced floods, except to determine if a house sits in a 100-year floodplain at the time the mortgage is issued, said Michael Berman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Once lenders and housing investors do start pricing in such risks, “There may be a threat to the availability of the 30-year mortgage in various vulnerable and highly exposed areas,” Berman wrote in a recent San Francisco Fed report. He predicts lenders could “blue-line” entire regions where flood risks are high — a reference to redlining, the practice of refusing mortgages to minorities…

Said Cleetus: “My biggest fear, honestly, is that the markets will get out ahead of our policies, and we see a situation where property values do start to decline, and small communities that rely on a lot of property tax revenue won’t be able to deal with it.”

It will be interesting to see who (1) pursues this as a competitive advantage and (2) how federal policy plays into this. In a quest to get ahead of the rest of the market, could someone come up with a unique mortgage for areas with more climate change risk? Discussions about whether federal money should be used in places prone to natural disasters has been going for decades (see Hurricane Sandy or discussions about resilient cities).

Much of the article focuses on how the lack of mortgages in certain areas would lead to decreased property values and then a downward spirals as communities would not be able to generate as much tax revenue. This could also work the other way: imagine communities where only the really wealthy can live because they do not need traditional mortgages. They could come in and gobble up real estate with lowered values. Either way, the result could be increased inequality in affected areas.

California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

What a McMansion looks like to an insurer

I find McMansions to be fascinating but rarely have I thought how an insurer might view a Large Tract Home (LTH):

While they might look grand, LTHs are different from high value homes in a few key ways. Their location and design is similar across an entire subdivision, the construction materials are lower in quality, LTH construction practices are focused on efficiency, and other LTH construction costs are more predictable and less expensive. Despite those differences, insurers can run into problems when assessing the reconstruction bill for an LTH.

“A lot of times, the sheer size of them [means] a lot of carriers classify them with a much higher reconstruction cost when it comes time to rebuild,” said Benjamin Abbott, product manager for CoreLogic Insurance Solutions group, adding that the latest RCT Express release “allows carriers to visually see whether a home is classified as a large tract home or not. And if it is, then we turn down the reconstruction costs a little bit with our assumptions and allow the tool to more accurately price [the property].”

The valuation distinctions between McMansions and high value properties becomes important as natural catastrophes bear down on many parts of the US, at the same time as a lot of new homes are being built in the LTH model…

“It’s important for the insurance carriers to accurately value the reconstruction costs of any property they have because their client, the homeowner, is going to see the impact of that reconstruction cost directly in the premiums that they pay,” Abbott told Insurance Business. “Prior to this update and with other tools out there, they are potentially over-insuring, meaning that premiums may be inflated, which hurts the homeowners directly.”

Interesting assessment: the size of McMansions would lead to a higher reconstruction cost until the insurer considers the quality of the construction and the reconstruction cost drops. I assume this then means it could be cheaper to insure a McMansion than a different kind of home of a similar size?

More broadly, I wonder if insurance companies could provide data on McMansions:

  1. Just how many McMansions/Large Tract Homes are there in the United States?
  2. What is the worth of all such homes?
  3. How many and/or what percent of McMansions are located in areas more prone to natural catastrophes (such as coastal areas where beachfront McMansions can be popular)?
  4. Because of the lower-quality construction of McMansions (as noted above), do McMansions have an above average number of claims on the home insurance over time? The lower-quality construction claim is a common one but we have not necessarily had enough years pass before we can easily see more issues with the longevity of McMansions.

Rebuilding beachfront McMansions

A journalist argues the construction and reconstruction of large homes near Atlantic beaches is a losing proposition in the long run:

Through federally funded flood insurance, huge appropriations for beach nourishment projects, and generous, well-intended relief aid, government policy allows developers and wealthy investors to build huge houses and hotels on beachfronts and low-lying barrier islands at high risk from coastal flooding as well as hurricanes. Uncle Sam’s generosity makes it all possible…

Writing just as the extensive damage from Hurricane Florence became apparent, Gaul covers the waterfront, so to speak — from Hurricane Katrina to South Florida, to the halls of Congress. In North Carolina, he stops Down East in Columbia, Creswell and other towns of North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” where rising water levels and flooding are washing away entire communities…

According to Gaul, things began to tip in the 1980s, when multistory “McMansions” began to supplant the simple Cape Cods. (A similar trend has transpired on the north end of our state’s Outer Banks). Disasters such as the Ash Wednesday flood of 1962 did little to discourage development. On the contrary, real estate dealers saw storms as “clearing the market,” blowing down older, ramshackle structures and making way for the new, bigger units that buyers seemed to want.

Real estate prices went up, and increasingly retirees and residents with modest incomes were squeezed out. But there were always more customers in line for resort property.

I wonder if the primary objection is that big homes are being built and someone is profiting from the government money or should there be no homes on these properties? If the goal is to protect the beach and taxpayer dollars, less development in these areas is better. If the problem is profiting with the government’s money, there could be restrictions on the size of the new home or how the money is used.

It would be an interesting thought experiment to consider what this would look like without any government intervention. The argument here is that the government’s funding for rebuilding simply encourages the cycle of building larger and larger homes. If there were no regulations, what would the market bear? Or, as the author seems to suggest, would different regulations be better for the long-term fate of the beach and tese communities?

The correct interpretation of the concept of a 500 or 1,000 year flood

A flood expert addresses five myths about floods and this includes the idea that a 500 year flood only happens once every 500 years:

Myth No. 3
A “100-year flood” is a historic, once-in-a-century disaster.

Describing floods in terms of “100-year,” “500-year” and “1,000-year” often makes people think the disaster was the most severe to occur in that time frame — as encapsulated by President Trump’s tweet calling Harvey a “once in 500 year flood!” He’s not alone. When researchers from the University of California at Berkeley surveyed residents in Stockton, Calif., about their perceived flood risk, they found that although 34 percent claimed familiarity with the term “100-year flood,” only 2.6 percent defined it correctly. The most common responses were some variation of “A major flood comes every 100 years — it’s a worst-case scenario’’ and ‘‘According to history, every 100 years or so, major flooding has occurred in the area and through documented history, they can predict or hypothesize on what to expect and plan accordingly and hopefully correct.”

In fact, the metric communicates the flood risk of a given area : A home in a 100-year flood plain has a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year. In 2018, Ellicott City, Md., experienced its second 1,000-year flood in two years, and with Harvey, Houston faced its third 500-year flood in three years.

That risk constantly changes, because of factors such as the natural movement of rivers, the development of new parcels of land, and climate change’s influence on rainfall, snowmelt, storm surges and sea level. “Because of all the uncertainty, a flood that has a 1 percent annual risk of happening has a high water mark that is best described as a range, not a single maximum point,” according to FiveThirtyEight.

I am not surprised that the majority of respondents in the cited survey got this wrong because I have never heard it explained this way. Either way, the general idea still seems to hold: the major flooding/storm/disaster is relatively rare and the probability is low in a given year that the major problem will occur.

Of course, that does not mean that there is no risk or that residents couldn’t experience multiple occurrences within a short time period (though this is predicted to be rare). Low risk events seem to flummox people when they do actually happen. Furthermore, as noted above, conditions can change and the same storms can create more damage depending on development changes.

So if this commonly used way of discussing risk and occurrences of natural disasters is not effective, what would better communicate the idea to local residents and leaders? Would it be better to provide the percent risk of flooding each year?

Natural disasters provide opportunity to build even bigger homes

In the spirit of “never let a good crisis go to waste,” homeowners in five areas that experienced natural disasters in recent years ended up with larger homes:

To estimate the mean change in real estate, Lazarus and his team gathered satellite data, from sources like Google Earth, of five hurricane-prone places: Mantoloking, New Jersey; Hatteras and Frisco, North Carolina; Santa Rosa Island, Florida; Dauphin Island, Alabama; and Bolivar, Texas. They looked at images taken before the most recent hurricane and compared them to satellite data gathered post-recovery.

Even with conservative study inclusion criteria (any structure that experienced a 15 percent or smaller change in size was excluded, Lazarus says, because with “satellite imagery, there’s tilt, the sun can glare in places, and you have to be careful with what you’re digitizing”), the results were striking. The study found that rebuilds were between 19 and 50 percent larger than the original structure. New construction increased in mean size between 14 percent and 55 percent compared to the buildings that stood before a given storm…

“This is where the moral hazard comes in: the risk of some choice you make is not entirely yours, it’s distributed to other people,” he says. In the United States, for example, taxpayers fund the National Flood Insurance Program, a financially-beleaguered federal entity that insures many of these enormous beach constructions. As a result, every taxpayer is inadvertently “supporting development in risky places,” he says.

There’s also concern that such disasters may be displacing poor and middle-class homeowners, allowing developers to swoop in after a catastrophe and build a wealthy renter or buyer’s dream McMansion from the ashes. In a blog post accompanying the study, Lazarus cited several such events, documented by newspapers around the country. “The one that really continues to hold my attention is the New York Times piece on the Jersey shore,” he says, citing a story about developers who were able to buy bigger lots at depressed prices, permanently changing the community.

I can see why this seems odd. An argument can be made that homes constructed in disaster-prone areas should be more modest. Perhaps homes should not be rebuilt in these locations at all. Building even bigger homes may appear to be throwing caution to the wind.

At the same time, the trend in the United States for a long time has been toward bigger and bigger homes. Regardless of the reason a home is destroyed, would a majority of Americans respond by building a larger home? And this might be especially true in this areas near the beach where homes and land can have a high value (even if there is a threat of disasters).

If a bigger home equals a better home for many Americans, it will be difficult to argue otherwise, regardless of the situation.

Fire-resistant homes, private firefighters, public goods, and inequality

Perhaps designing a home that can hold off wildfires is not the best way to go. Instead, just hire your own team of firefighters:

As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.

The prominence of celebrities in the story may attract controversy but the use of private firefighters is part of a larger trend:

The National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 250 private wildfire-fighting companies, who provide on-demand services to federal, state, and local governments. Budget cuts have forced privatization onto the Forest Service, as the NWSA itself explains. “The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution,” the NWSA media backgrounder says.

While Americans generally think certain public goods should be available to all or many (though this is notably missing in certain areas, such as a right to housing), those with wealth often can access different options or better versions of what the public can use. A historian puts it this way:

“Are the present examples (Kanye West et al.) the thin end of a wedge that will lead to the wealthy buying better services in all these realms: education, policing, healthcare, firefighting?” Bailey wondered. “Or are we already a long way down this path?”

I wonder if Americans feel differently about natural disasters, sometimes termed “acts of God.” It is hard for anyone to completely prepare or defend against major disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires. The wealthy can rebuild and recover more easily but only so much can be done in these situations. This differs from more typical goods or public services people can access where we have much less conversation about buying into higher levels of service or quality.