Featured: The New Rule of Real Estate: Sustainability

Marilyn Waite

Published in Issue 1

It was the middle of winter as I sat on a chartered bus along Heidelberg Street. It started to drizzle.

Detroit has great potential, I thought. It doesn’t matter if the automobile industry comes back with a vengeance or not. “There is something great here,” I said to Sara, an acquaintance traveling with me. “What, like the weather?” joked Sara. We were experiencing below-freezing temperatures.

As Sara pondered my thoughts, I looked out of the window at the dilapidated infrastructure and modern artwork. We were stationed in front of the Heidelberg Project, a creative outdoor art exhibition on Detroit’s East Side—a side where industry and residential life are now scarce. Scarce like water in the Sahara Desert—vacant buildings, vacant roads, and broken glass. I was observing yet another expression of the demise of a deindustrialized city and the hope for brighter days. The Heidelberg Project thrives on with more than 25 years of history and a strong commitment to providing visitors with a look into urban transformation. My favorite part of the outdoor exhibition was the re-use of materials, some of which could be recycled in classic separating bins, others that were more creative, like the colored tires that reminded me of gigantic Lifesavers candy.

Here we were, Sara and I, on a study tour of the postindustrial cities of Detroit and Pittsburgh. Surrounded by a group of like-minded peers from Europe and North America, I knew I could express my views on sustainability in its many forms with the group, the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy. I was in a city known for decline, and perhaps, completely juxtaposed with my Parisian abode.  Nevertheless, there was something great in Detroit, and no one appeared to be seeing it. It was the elephant in the room.

“What runs and has no feet, roars but has no mouth…” Sara murmured to herself. It was a riddle I had asked Sara to guess.

“Water!” Sara shouted.

Everyone turned around and looked at us. Yes, water. The Great Lakes to be specific. The North American Great Lakes account for one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. Detroit sits along a gold mine – blue gold. And with climate change occurring, coupled with a burgeoning population, locations with freshwater sources are clearly in a better position than those without.

Sara paused.

“You are right. Better to develop in Detroit than in the middle of the desert.”

Unfortunately, even climate change makes this advantage less of a benefit, I admitted.  The Great Lakes are shrinking; water levels are at record lows…

Climate change impacts vary by the level of greenhouse gas emissions that we continue to emit, and consequently the degree of change that we allow. Entire ecosystems:  food, water, coasts, and human health will face negative impacts due to increasing global average temperature.

Enjoy scuba diving and beautiful coral reefs? Expect increased coral bleaching and widespread coral mortality.

Like tigers or parakeets? Expect significant extinctions all around the globe.

How about a nice bowl of oatmeal, topped with honey and fresh fruit? Expect decreased cereal grain productivity, and thus decreased supply and increased prices.

And what about water? While some locations will experience increased water availability (in the tropics and high latitudes), others will experience decreased water availability and increased drought. More and more people will be exposed to increased water stress.

I turned back to Sara and asked, “Do you like living on the coast?” Expect coastal flooding. Perhaps 30% of global coastal wetlands lost, and increased damage from floods and storms.  And that is not an exhaustive list.

Our day’s excursion was coming to an end. Our bus pulled up to the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel. “Everyone get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is the North American International Auto Show,” our tour leader said with excitement.

The next day we all headed to the Cobo Center to check out the latest in automobile ingenuity. Yes, there were the completely fuel inefficient vehicles and a host of other items that made one ask, “who on Earth would buy that?” But, there were abundant greener vehicles in terms of material use and fuel efficiency. On the bottom level of the big conference center was an installed track to test-drive a few models. The only problem was that I hadn’t driven in ages. Who needs wheels in Paris, a city with extensive public transportation and bicycles galore? I dug into my Mary Poppins bag and finally found a driver’s license to hand to the “car keepers.” I tried out the Coda, a California-based electric-vehicle (EV) that boasts a lithium ion iron phosphate battery that delivers a range of 88 miles (142 kilometers). I saw others try out other electric car models like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. It didn’t feel like driving. I was floating. I would have heard a needle drop—that’s how pleasingly quiet the EV drove. I was not surprised to later find out that an all-electric plug-in car, the Tesla Model S, was voted the 2013 car of the year in many countries. After a couple of loops, I parked the car, got out, and thought to myself again, “Detroit has great potential.”

The group continued on to Pittsburgh, considered a post-industrial success story due to its diversification in the health and financial sectors after a decline in steel production. While overlooking the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, another conversation emerged.  It was about the coast in Florida, where a tour member’s parents had just purchased retirement property. But as many know, insurance premiums and uninsurable places are on a dramatic rise in Florida due to extreme weather events.

In 2011 alone, extreme weather events cost U.S. property/casualty insurers more than $32 billion in losses. Tornadoes in Missouri, wildfires in Texas, Mississippi River flooding, hailstorms in Arizona, and hurricanes in Florida were all a part of the losses. Insurers withdrew from the state of Florida after several shattering hurricanes, rendering more than one million homeowners insured by the “insurer of last resort.”

The climate change impacts on property include flooding, damage to the external envelope, wind-related structural damage, decreased durability and performance of materials, poorer internal environment, and subsidence. Drier summers and more flash flooding will cause less water infiltration into the ground, and thus more subsidence of buildings. Since buildings are currently designed using historical wind speed data, the more extreme wind speeds may cause damage to existing structures, and make design more expensive for new buildings. And the list goes on…

The study tour came to an end. I said goodbye to Sara and the others. When I got back to Paris many things were awaiting me, including a visit from my mother and my dear British uncle Samuel. This visit happened at a special time; I was making my own plans for investing in property. It was time to challenge my sustainability values. Doing a simple online search, I stumbled upon a new neighborhood that was being built in an old military fort. It was brownfield remediation French-style. The new neighborhood would use geothermal energy, contain energy efficient buildings, use rainwater harvesting, incorporate solar panels, limit traffic, provide green space, and more.

As I walked to the construction site at the old fort, I could feel the air getting cleaner (at an altitude of 30 meters above sea level). As I looked out, I could imagine the geothermal wells being dug more than 700 meters below the surface, the gardens, the children playing, and people cycling. When it was time to sign reservation papers for one of the units, what seemed like a never-ending pile of papers was put before me. When it came to the “environmental hazards and risks” section, there was very little risk indeed. With my sustainability hat on, I read this section very carefully. I combed through the text and analyzed the maps from different angles. I re-read the legends to make sure that I understood each item correctly. There were no seismic or inundation risks for my potential new home. I thought about families living on the coast of Florida and many other cities.

So it was done. I had managed to invest in a place that was in line with sustainability. It was sufficiently far enough from the river and high enough on the hill for me to feel at least partially protected by sea level rise. As my visiting family members and I were taking a boat cruise along the Seine River in Paris, we passed famous buildings, museums and sights. A family sitting near us pointed out the monuments, which I gladly listened to in absence of any official narration by the boat crew.

“Look, there is the Louvre, where the original Mona Lisa painting lies,” someone pointed out. “And there is the Eifel Tower all lit up; it shrinks a few inches every winter,” another family member stated.

As we looked out on a few multi-million euro residential properties aligning the river, Samuel joked, “So why didn’t you buy here?” Once again, I had to explain climate change, the logic behind investing in sustainable infrastructure (and that means infrastructure away from flood plains), and why “no”, even if I were a billionaire I wouldn’t buy property along the Seine River.

In the autumn of that same year, I went to Washington, D.C., and this time for a longer period.  As I helped a friend, Alex, look for investment properties, we discussed the constraints.  For her it was budget, ease of renting, low fees, and low taxes. The constraints for me: sustainability and climate change. Real estate itself, because of its construction, use and demolition phases, accounts for 30-40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If we could find a sustainable building (certified or not) in a sustainable location (formally identified or not), I would be happy.

One of my friends, Ian, was somewhat of a real estate guru and lived in Fells Point, Baltimore, Maryland. He suggested Baltimore as a place for Alex to consider investing. Baltimore had many advantages for Alex: near Washington, D.C. and thus manageable, in a major East Coast city (economic links), and many reputable universities (potential renters). Despite Baltimore being known for its safety problems, it still seemed to be a place that could turn around for the better. The up-and-coming neighborhoods, cheaper than Washington, D.C. and cool enough to have organic food and local cafes, were attracting the younger generations. Grits and gluten-free mac and cheese were to the area what homemade fries and foie gras was in the Paris region – simple, hip food that made it on mainstream menus for high prices.

I met Ian for morning coffee (organic, fair trade Earl Grey tea for me) at a hip spot in Washington, D.C. We pulled out the Baltimore neighborhood maps (minuscule and seemingly arbitrary ways of dividing up the city).

Ian told me, “This is a good spot,” “stay away from here,” “you have to have a look here first.”

“Where do you live?” I asked Ian. He pointed to Fells Point. It looked very close to the bay to me. “Is that in the floodplain?” I inquired.

“Yes, most parts.”

I learned from a colleague who had studied in Baltimore that many homes have already flooded in Fells Point, way before the brunt of climate change.

“I know what you are thinking,” Ian said.

I didn’t say anything, but we both knew. He knew it. I knew it. Fells Point was not a sustainable location given the promises of climate change.

Alex and I decided to expand our horizons and check out another state—Tennessee. I headed to Nashville, where I had a dear friend, Nathan. After a big hug and updates, we started to talk business—property business. I forgot to mention: Nathan’s mom was a real estate agent and thus could give priceless insights into the market in Nashville. We spent the next few days looking at various condos and single-family homes. We checked out the historic Germantown neighborhood, an 18 square block area in walking distance to the Farmers Market (think everything good about eating packed into one location—like homemade barbeque and Amish pumpkin pies). The condo in Germantown was great, but we were expecting a one bedroom and one bath and ended up with just a studio. Strike one. We checked out East Nashville, a so-called up and coming area with eccentric cafes and aspiring artists of all trades. There, a newly renovated house (it had been “flipped,” as they say in Nashville), was in an attractive location with an enormous back yard. The only problem was, all of the homes on this street were on an incline—almost as if the ground had not properly settled. In addition, the homes were near the floodplain (not quite in the flood plain, but would probably be in the future with climate change).

The Cumberland River was nearby. Strike two. We checked out downtown Nashville, in walking distance to many places of interest and commercial buildings. The only problem was, the condo we visited was a couple of meters from the river and was flooded during the May 2010 extreme Nashville floods (once in every 1000-year flood). Maybe it was a 1000-year flood based on historical records, but climate change may make that kind of heavy flooding more common and thus a risk for properties. Strike three. The city of Nashville, interestingly enough, has officially joined the National Campaign for Climate Change Action to call on POTUS and the EPA to cut greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to climate change. The resolution was adopted in November 2012 in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Which brings me to the last episode in my sustainable location journey. Still in Washington, D.C. in late October 2012, I was also “hit” by Hurricane Sandy. It was election season in the USA, and the last thing officials wanted was an event that would keep people away from the polls. Early voting was already in motion. For two days, the city closed down. Metro services and other public transportation were not available, the federal government was closed, and the many organizations that directly or indirectly work for the federal government also closed their doors.

On the night before the storm was supposed to gravitate to the area, large grocery stores, small grocery stores, and even the ubiquitous CVS convenient stores were emptied of their contents. I too headed to the supermarket with my housemate to buy food staples, goodies, and even bottled water in the event that water supplies were shut off (one of the only good reasons to purchase bottled water since it is such a resource-intensive effort). We lived on the second floor of an apartment building. The only available basement was where we kept the garbage, so it really had to be an emergency to go there. There was an oak tree near my bedroom window. Apparently there was a storm a few months earlier that caused damage to the area, including damage by falling tree branches. I was afraid that the oak tree had been weakened by the previous storm. I sat up in bed, looking out at the window and drawing the blankets closer and closer to my head as the branch knocked on the window.

“I could go and lock myself in the bathroom,” I thought to myself.

At least there were no windows in there. The lights went out. There was no more Internet. I closed my eyes and hoped that the branch didn’t smash the window and that everyone I knew would be safe.

Eventually, the lights came back on and most people in Washington, D.C. were back at work within 48 hours. It wasn’t the same story for New York. Coastal homes were shattered. The NY subway—a symbol of urban sustainable transport and convenience—was inundated and subsequently out-of-service. Homes and businesses were out of electricity. Sandy killed over one-hundred people in the U.S. and over sixty people in the Caribbean. Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy, four NY City hospitals remained closed for inpatients. Was there a link between Sandy and climate change? Likely. One of the many causes of increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes is climate change. The higher than average sea-surface temperatures along the East Coast are one of the factors that fueled the hurricane.  One catastrophe risk modeling company, Risk Management Solutions, has officially declared that its 100-year database of historical Atlantic hurricane activity is no longer a valid predictor of future risk.

My experience that year, starting in Detroit and ending in Washington, D.C., showed me a stark new reality of sustainable development: location is important. Ask any property specialist, and they will recite the three golden rules of the real estate game: location, location, location. But climate change and the demands of sustainability change the traditional rules of “location.”  One now must think about location—big city or small town, country or region—through a sustainability lens. Sure, the music scene in Nashville and the Inner Harbor of Baltimore are points of attraction. It’s nice to feel a part of the soul of any place. However, in a greenhouse-constrained world, where climate change is upon us, sustainable development requires us to rethink priorities, whether buying real estate or simply living. Latitude. Floodplain. Sea level. Water. My experiences across different cities taught me one thing:

Sustainability and location go hand in hand.

Alex and I were sitting down in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. We had not yet found a good investment property in the cities we had visited.

“Well, what next?” she asked me.

As I pondered the events of the last years, thinking about locations through a sustainability paradigm, I turned to Alex and said, “Detroit has great potential.” It has an abundant freshwater source, will not suffer from sea level rise like many coastal cities, and in general, is expected to fare pretty well in a changed climate.