Avert Magazine

Opinion: Disasters worsen housing crises, but they don’t have to

March 10, 2023
By Glenn McGillivray

Thousands of homes are being taken offline either permanently or temporarily by severe weather events, writes Glenn McGillivray.

Flooding on B.C. Highway 11 in November 2021. Photo: BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure/Flickr.

There are several uncomfortable truths about “natural” disasters, at least two of which are directly relevant to a discussion about the impact of storms, floods and such on housing.

First, disasters very commonly take pre-existing socioeconomic/sociopolitical problems in affected communities and make them worse. Disasters sometimes cause these problems outright. But, more often than not, the problems existed before the storm and the disaster simply made them more pronounced.

Second, disasters increase the competition for resources between population sub-groups (i.e. those considered to be “socially vulnerable” due to age, income, health/physical ability, ethnicity, gender or some combination thereof). Some sub-groups are well organized, well connected into government and better at vying for resources. But others may not enjoy the same level of influence and success at getting such things as disaster assistance, better housing or the big public infrastructure project aimed at lessening their disaster risk.

Almost nowhere are these two central tenets more evident than in the area of housing. Disasters take what are usually pre-existing housing problems (i.e. issues of availability and affordability) and worsen them – often exponentially.


Almost every community of any size in Canada is currently experiencing a housing crisis, or so it seems. These crises tend to centre around housing shortages and, consequently, high home prices/rents due to simple matters of supply and demand.

When the disaster comes along, both of these are impacted. First, the storm/flood/wildfire/earthquake can take a large number of homes offline (as a result of either total losses or severe damage). This puts huge pressure on availability and, thus, real estate/rent prices for remaining housing due to increased competition among those vying for new temporary or permanent places to live. Price gouging often also takes place, as landlords see an opportunity to earn greater returns.

A recent article in The Washington Post noted that wildfires in California are leading to “fire-driven gentrification” as people with discount or no insurance and no funds to repair their homes are being forced to leave while those who can afford to stay and those who can afford to buy are driving property values up.

The impact of disasters on gentrification was also identified in a study published in Nature Sustainability (“Building back bigger in hurricane strike zones, December 2018) where an analysis of five coastal communities in the U.S. showed that larger, less affordable residential buildings were being constructed in place of smaller homes that were destroyed by hurricanes.

Another recent disaster-driven housing trend has corporations and land speculators buying flood- and storm-damaged properties – often at cut rate prices – from people who can’t afford to repair them, and renting them out or flipping them for profit. This trend was spotted in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

Canada is not untouched by the impact of disasters on housing.

The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., destroyed around 2,400 structures, the lion’s share being housing units. Almost 25,000 personal property insurance claims for physical damage were filled as a result of the wildfire, indicating that many more homes suffered varying degrees of harm.

Then there was the atmospheric river flooding in southwestern B.C. in November 2021. According to Linda Brown, the then Mayor of Merritt, B.C., of 574 homes assessed after the flood, 427 where in need of some kind of repair. More than a year after the flood, 120 of these homes were still uninhabitable. Speaking at CatIQ Connect, a disaster conference recently held in Toronto, Brown said that homelessness in the city went from 11 before the flood to well over 70 at last count and was increasing. She noted that at least 26 low-income rentals would not be rebuilt.

Merritt was just one of several B.C. communities impacted by flooding. Almost 6,000 personal property insurance claims for physical damage were filled province-wide as a result of the atmospheric river.

In 2022, tens of thousands of personal property insurance claims were filed with insurers Canada-wide due to severe weather, contributing to $3.1 billion in total insured losses for “natural” disasters of a certain minimum size. This put the year in the top three costliest ever for disaster losses. Huge storms like the May 2022 derecho in Ontario and Quebec and post-tropical storm Fiona in Atlantic Canada in September together saw thousands of homes left uninhabitable, many permanently.

While the reasons for Canada’s numerous housing crises are varied and complex, one common denominator is that each year thousands of homes are being taken offline either permanently or temporarily by severe weather events.

We can prevent housing crises from getting worse due to severe weather, and this is yet another good reason why we need to get better information on where the risk is, and communicate that to various players, like governments at all levels, building code officials, home builders and home buyers. We need to build new homes more resiliently, retrofit existing homes, and get the riskiest of the risky permanently out of harm’s way.

This is increasingly important in a world where a full quarter of Canadians are unable to cover an unexpected expense of $500.

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.

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