Five winters ago, one of the biggest local storm surges in 50 years hit Vancouver, a city on the front lines of climate change that’s also among the world’s most expensive places to own a home. “I got scared: ‘Oh, my God, we’re gonna flood,’” recalled Ricky Point, a member of Musqueam First Nation and part of the public works department.
Point had good reason to be frightened. The Musqueam reserve is located in southeast Vancouver on the banks of the Fraser River and exposed to the Pacific Ocean. Parts of the reserve are close to sea level and could be completely inundated by a flood even just a bit stronger than the norm.
But Point’s experience wasn’t universally felt among the Vancouver region’s roughly 2.8 million inhabitants. While he agonized over how bad the flooding would get, residents in the relatively nearby neighbourhood of Shaughnessy had much less to fear. This area of leafy streets where mansions have sold for as high as $33 million is 83 metres above sea level.
The storm was a close call. Water levels eventually receded around Musqueam after a few hours without causing much damage. “This will go down in history as the first summer Vancouver really experienced climate change,” a city official said in 2015, of a season that included wildfire smoke, unusually strong storm surges, water shortages, and above-average heat.
Vancouver reacted by commissioning flood experts and agreeing to spend tens of millions of dollars improving a decades-old system of dikes badly in need of repair.
But the year also contained a social warning that seems to have gone largely unheeded: If and when climate-intensified flooding inflicts catastrophic damage on Vancouver, many of the city’s richest residents could escape relatively unscathed. As global temperature rise gets worse over the coming decades, the disparity between the city’s most expensive areas and vulnerable communities like Musqueam could widen.
And if anything, climate experts told VICE News, the potential for a desperately unequal city to become even more divided and unaffordable is far worse than it was in 2015.
Vancouver’s geography makes it uniquely vulnerable to climate change. A good chunk of its metro area is built on a flood plain, resulting in roughly 250,000 people living within about 1 metre above sea level. Researchers at the University of Southampton several years ago placed it in a global top 20 of flood-exposed cities alongside New Orleans, Miami, New York, Mumbai, and Osaka.
The city has for over a decade attempted to become one of the most ecologically sustainable places on the planet. It has built dense housing near transit hubs, planted trees, and expanded a large network of bike lanes. This fall the UK group Business Waste named Vancouver the world’s “greenest city” for its innovative waste recycling programs.
Yet all this has taken place against a deepening affordability crisis. The Vancouver region’s average home price is around $1.2 million. It’s the most unaffordable city in North America, an Oxford Economics team concluded this week.
For years, city planners have largely treated climate risk and housing unaffordability as two separate and unrelated challenges. But as ocean levels rise due to global heating, social inequality and unaffordability in Vancouver could rise along with them—and experts contacted by VICE News said the city is nowhere near prepared for the consequences.
In the event of a catastrophic surge of water that inundates huge swaths of Metro Vancouver, more than 200,000 people, including members of Musqueam, would be displaced, according to the Fraser Basin Council, a nonprofit group focused on sustainability. Yet the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, which largely sit on higher elevation and include the $66.8 million mansion of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, could stay mostly dry.
Compounding these risks, roughly 10 percent of new building permits granted by the City of Vancouver in recent years, including essential infrastructure like hospitals, are in a 100-year flood plain—meaning there’s a 1 in 100 chance of a flood occurring in a given year, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices calculates. This means that buildings worth potentially $1 billion could be at risk of damaging flooding.
The market seems equally oblivious to climate dangers in the nearby municipality of Richmond, where a VICE News analysis found more than a dozen of the most expensive property listings could experience annual flooding by 2030.
As these risks intensify over the coming decades, an estimated 1 million people are expected to move to Metro Vancouver.
Combine all these factors—increasing odds of damaging floods, ridiculously high home prices, new buildings in vulnerable areas, and a coming wave of migrants—and you have a situation where Vancouver’s already extreme unaffordability could shift into overdrive.
Like countless other cities, Vancouver’s inequities have been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic: The relatively wealthy worked from home while “essential workers” gambled their health for lower wages. But that could look minor compared to the looming social upheavals of global temperature rise, said Andy Yan, a prominent urban planner in Vancouver and professor at Simon Fraser University. What happens here on the west coast of Canada could play out across the world.
“COVID is the 30-second sneak-peek trailer of what is probably going to be a two-and-a-half-hour cinematic blockbuster,” he told VICE News. “What’s going to happen with climate change is that our preexisting social and economic inequalities are just going to be amplified.”
For years, city planners have debated what to do about Crescent Beach, a low-lying area of Metro Vancouver where seawater regularly overcomes a system of flood controls and pools near homes. “We all talk about climate change, but Crescent Beach is a case where it’s already here,” a local city worker said back in 2015. “And we have to act now.”
In 2018, planners proposed the idea of buying out dozens of homes exposed to flooding and retreating the community from the shoreline, a dramatic solution that could still be cheaper and more technically feasible than raising the existing dike by 2.5 metres and then being on the hook in perpetuity for costly erosion control. (The plan was dropped after community opposition.)
But the community isn’t even fully aware of the risks it faces. It only began the process of installing wave-monitoring stations earlier this year.
Flood experts see a similar dynamic playing out over the entire region: a general awareness of the flooding dangers of climate change, but a striking lack of knowledge about specifics. A recent report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices explained that “government-produced flood maps in Canada are substantially more incomplete and outdated than those in the U.S.” When knowledge about which specific neighbourhoods and areas are most at risk becomes more specific, it could cause insurance rates to soar, which is already starting to happen south of the border.
But the lack of detailed data for Vancouver could also mean that “property buyers—from individual homeowners to commercial real estate investors—are likely paying too much for homes and buildings whose value will drop when their flood risk becomes apparent,” it warns.
In the city of Richmond, a short drive from Crescent Beach, VICE World News identified potential evidence of this when looking at the top 20 most expensive properties listed in mid-October 2021 and seeing if they are threatened by sea-level rise and annual flooding, according to Climate Central’s screening tool.
Using one set of optimistic sea-level-rise outcomes based on projections by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, VICE World News found that 15 of the 20 most expensive property listings—with a median value of $12 million—could experience annual flooding by 2030.
But this isn’t just a problem for the wealthy. The housing market in Richmond, like the rest of Metro Vancouver, is out of whack with people’s incomes. Even though the median home price is roughly $1 million, the median income of Richmond’s residents—more than two-thirds of whom are Chinese, South Asian, and Filipino—was about $65,000 in 2015, slightly less than the national median income. As a community built on islands in the Fraser River Delta, virtually the entire municipality is exposed to flooding.
While wealthy homeowners and investors can potentially relocate if their houses become submerged, many lower-income families cannot—and could face a financial hit that could ruin them.
“If we look at household balance sheets for Canada, there is a huge amount of wealth that is stored in property, and a huge amount of debt that is stored in property,” said Dylan Clark, a lead author on the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices report, which found that nearly 58,000 homes across British Columbia are at risk of regular flooding by mid-century even if the world achieves a best-case outcome on limiting greenhouse gases. “So that situation certainly adds some vulnerabilities.”
There are two ways the region’s systems of dikes could be breached: through a strong-than-usual storm that causes Pacific Ocean tides to surge, or by a deluge of rain along with melting mountain glaciers that overloads the Fraser River with water. Public spaces by the waterfront—parks, trails, and beaches—are also at risk.
“Impacts from a major flood could be wide-ranging,” says a new report from the Fraser Basin Council, which estimated the potential damage of a catastrophic flood as high as $30 billion with potentially hundreds of thousands of people affected. “Impacts from a smaller flood could still be devastating for a smaller community, including many First Nations communities.”
According to the Fraser Basin Council, 26 First Nations across the region are vulnerable to major coastal flooding. Many of their 61 reserves are not currently protected by diking systems. “There’s a few different options that we’ve got to consider as a whole community,” said Ricky’s brother Norman Point, who is manager of Musqueam’s public works department and is helping develop Musqueam’s flood mitigation strategy. Norman lists some possible solutions they’re studying, including raising homes, building super dikes, adding fill material to block off the whole reserve, or even relocating the community. Any plans will be discussed with the chief and council and involve community engagement.
These are strategies that other non-Indigenous Lower Mainland communities are also discussing, because although they “are situated behind flood protection infrastructure, all dikes pose a risk of failure during a major flood,” the Fraser Basin Council report says.
The Fraser Basin Council didn’t respond to a media request from VICE News.
There have been warnings like this for years, but city planners are still allowing buildings and crucial infrastructure to be placed in harm’s way—roughly 10 percent of building permits issued in the past three years are in areas at risk of flooding, Clark calculated. All in all, about 10,000 of the City of Vancouver’s roughly 107,000 buildings are located within a 100-year flood plain.
“A 100-year flood plain is riskier than it sounds,” Clark writes. “For example, a house in a 100-year flood plain with a 25-year mortgage has a 22 percent chance of flooding at least once during those 25 years.”
The coming decades are likely to result in massive demographic changes. A planning organization known as Metro Vancouver predicts that 1 million people will move to the region within the next 30 years. These newcomers could be drawn by the area’s majestic Pacific coast scenery, temperate climate, progressive politics, and jobs in a burgeoning tech industry. They might also move here because of drought, extreme heat, devastating hurricanes, and other consequences of global temperature rise in their home countries.
“The Pacific Northwest will no doubt face significant impacts because of climate change, but compared to other regions in the world, it could very well be an incredibly attractive place for people to want to live,” Jonathan Coté, chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional Planning Committee and mayor of New Westminster, told VICE World News.
But as wildfires intensify across B.C.—such as the blaze that destroyed the entire town of Lytton earlier this year—more and more migrants could be arriving in Vancouver from only a few hundred kilometres away. “It’s not only going to be Afghanistan or Syria or Ethiopia or Yemen,” Yan said. “It’s going to be internally displaced people within the province.”
A new planning document that Coté is working on called Metro 2050 says the region can begin to address all these challenges by discouraging new development in flood-prone areas and invest heavily in dikes and other protections where development already exists. He’s confident the region can construct enough low-cost housing clustered around public transit options to keep unaffordability from spinning further out of control. “We have to accelerate the work we’ve been doing to build more mixed-use, more dense communities,” he said.
Others are unsure. The current development pattern is mostly based on building detached homes in far-flung suburban areas where people are forced to use cars, argues Seattle-based think tank the Sightline Institute. “If things play out as envisioned,” it recently argued, “the result will be even higher home prices and more exclusion in Vancouver.”
If Yan is correct that COVID is just a preview of greater inequities to come, then what will happen to home prices when a million new people arrive at the same time that coastal flooding is potentially destroying existing homes and reducing the physical area that homes can be built on?
“It’s a good question and it’s something that I’ve certainly spent time thinking about,” Clark said. “Quite simply, there’s a lack of information. We just don’t know.”
Other cities are already providing previews of what this looks like. Home prices in the Caribbean enclave of Little Haiti in Miami have increased by 19 percent in recent years as wealthier home buyers retreat from the coastline to higher-elevation areas. This is the case study that launched the concept of “climate gentrification,” the process by which neighbourhoods better protected from climate impacts become more desirable and expensive, often at the expense of lower-income residents.
But versions of this social stratification will occur—or are already taking place—in almost any U.S. or Canadian city with significant exposure to flooding, said Matthew Eby, the founder and executive director of First Street Foundation. That organization recently released a report showing that up to one-quarter of U.S. infrastructure is exposed to climate flooding.
The water that’s coming, he warned, will restructure entire urban environments along with the social divides within them. “Those people who are affluent move into other parts of town and push up the prices,” he said.
How that could play out in Vancouver is still unclear. But Norman Point sees many risk factors already in place. The reserve is surrounded by multimillion-dollar homes at much higher elevations than his community. “And we’re here and we’ve always had these issues [with flooding],” he said. “It impacts everyone.”
This story is part of a Covering Climate Now reporting series on climate migration called “Flight for Their Lives.” CCNow is a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.