For two years running, John Haynes has been among the top five solo real estate agents of the more than 400 Asheville-area agents affiliated with Keller Williams. In 2019, he personally brokered property sales of well over $12 million.
Given those numbers, one might expect Haynes to specialize in selling Biltmore Forest mansions or chic condos in downtown Asheville. But the focus of his brand, Retreat Realty, sits far from the urban core: Instead, the agent deals mainly in the rural parts of Western North Carolina, featuring “homesteads, off-grid, retreats and prepper properties.”
The majority of his clients, Haynes reports, come from outside WNC. Many of them hail from populous coastal states such as Florida, New Jersey and Texas. And many of them say their decision to move is driven by upticks in destructive weather and higher tides, challenges the federal Environmental Protection Agency has tied to climate change.
“Folks are really starting to get weary of the pattern of hurricanes and extreme weather and are looking for more stable environments such as Western North Carolina,” Haynes explains. “I hear folks talk about rising sea levels, what their property’s going to look like 10 years from now and the ability to get insurance on their homes in these flood-prone and hurricane-plagued areas.”
While Retreat Realty specifically markets to clients looking to ride out an uncertain future, Bob Turner says customers are voicing similar worries to real estate agents throughout WNC. Last year, The Laurel of Asheville columnist and director of Arden-based Creekside Farm Education Center reached out to over 1,500 real estate professionals in Buncombe and Henderson counties, asking if they’d ever had a client cite climate risk as a reason for moving to the area. Of more than 90 respondents, over 95% said climate had come up in their consultations.
Turner argues that real estate agents represent an “early warning system” for climate migration. What those professionals are flagging as a market trend now, he argues, could herald a much larger shift as climate impacts continue.
“If Miami does go underwater, big chunks of it, we’re talking about millions of people having to relocate,” Turner says, referencing the coastal Florida city that’s largely situated within a few feet of current sea level. “That creates stresses on those regions where they’re relocating to — for instance, Asheville.”
Hard data on how many relocations are driven by climate is difficult to find. The nation’s largest questionnaire to ask about migration, the American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, doesn’t gather information about the reasons for a household’s move.
However, many of the counties identified by that survey as among the biggest sources of new Buncombe County residents align with the vulnerable coastal regions flagged by area real estate agents as home to climate-conscious clients. Just 14 counties outside of North Carolina had more than 100 people move to Buncombe between 2013 and 2017. Five of those were in Florida, one in New York and one along the California coast.
And scientific models of future migration also identify WNC as a potential draw for domestic climate migrants. A 2017 study published in Nature Climate Change used tax filing data to determine current migration trends within the U.S., then projected how those trends would be accelerated if sea levels rose 1.8 meters (about 6 feet) by 2100.
Based on those assumptions, the Asheville metropolitan statistical area — Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties — could gain an extra 24,400 residents through 2100 due to sea level rise alone. That boost would put Asheville in the top 5% of over 900 MSAs by projected population change and represents a more than 5% increase over the current population of about 463,000.
Jim Fox, the former director of UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, emphasizes that future projections of population based on climate change should be taken with a grain of salt. Current migration patterns, he says, reflect a complex mix of climate concerns and other factors that are likely to change over time.
“The boomers are bringing their dollars with them and are looking to retire in peace,” Fox says about many new residents of WNC. “The whole boomer generation and the way they think are also a dying breed, and so to be able to say that subsequent generations are going to be making decisions the same way is a very dangerous assumption.”
Nevertheless, Fox says the Nature Climate Change study’s ballpark estimate for climate-driven migration to the Asheville MSA is “probably reasonable.” He notes that the region has long been a refuge for those seeking respite from inhospitable areas — Flat Rock in Henderson County, he points out, was originally established in the early 1800s as a retreat from the blistering summer heat of the coast for wealthy Southerners.
Have cash, will travel
Fox suggests that Flat Rock’s example has particular relevance for modern WNC. While popular discussions of climate migration often focus on poor residents of developing countries, he says, climate-driven arrivals to this region are more likely to be well-off transplants from inside the U.S.
“We have a unique type of climate refugee, and that’s people who bring resources with them,” Fox explains. “They have the ability to relocate and buy a house and they’re not having to live off of the dole.”
One such transplant is Ken Kahn, an online toy store owner who moved with his wife, Joanne Kalp, from the Boston area to Woodfin’s Olivette Riverside Community and Farm in 2018. The only home currently listed for sale on the community’s website is priced at $739,000, with a semiannual homeowners association fee of $1,050.
Olivette’s vision of life centered on sustainable food and creativity was a major attraction, Kahn says. But as he and Kalp went through a “process of elimination” about possible places to move, WNC’s climate resilience pushed the community ahead of other options such as New York’s Hudson River Valley, the Berkshires of western Massachusetts or Santa Fe, N.M.
“We had both read reports that indicated that, probably in the next 50 years, things west of the Mississippi were going to start to turn very desertlike and things east of Mississippi were likely to be kind of wet,” explains Kahn. “Although we love Cape Cod. … I would look at my friends who were buying oceanfront property as a retirement plan and say, ‘I think you all are crazy.’”
Haynes acknowledges that most of Retreat Realty’s out-of-state clients also “tend to be of the wealthier clientele.” He says about half of those customers are buying properties not as a permanent residence but as a “fallback position” that can serve as a vacation home or rental opportunity until conditions elsewhere deteriorate.
But all of his clients, Haynes continues, are looking for properties with reliable water, mild seasons and good soil for agriculture and livestock: the type of land that can sustain a family through difficult times. “In the back of their mind, they are thinking that in 5 years, 10 years, however long it is, we may be forced out of where we are to come up here,” he says.
The paired influx of people and money, Fox says, is already having consequences for the region. Those moving from areas with higher property values — the median home prices on Zillow for both New York City and San Diego, two areas identified as sources of significant Buncombe County migration by the American Community Survey, are over twice that for Asheville — can pay more for homes than can many locals, thereby driving up the cost of housing.
Too much love?
Beyond the challenge migration poses to affordability, Fox worries that continued growth could eventually make Asheville’s population less resilient to the impacts of climate change. As existing housing stock in the area’s flatlands gets bought up, developers are more likely to build on forested mountainsides, which he says are susceptible to landslides and wildfires.
Both of those disasters, notes Kenneth Kunkel, are likely to grow more common throughout WNC due to shifts in climate. A scientist with N.C. State University’s Asheville-based N.C. Institute for Climate Studies, he spearheaded the N.C. Climate Science Report published in May at the behest of Gov. Roy Cooper.
Kunkel expects a regional increase in landslides due to climate-driven changes in precipitation. When storms happen, he explains, they’ll be more likely to bring heavy rain due to higher overall humidity. “And when it rains here, it immediately flows down,” he adds, due to the area’s rugged topography.
Meanwhile, the region’s droughts will take place against a backdrop of higher overall temperatures, creating a greater danger for wildfires. “Vegetative matter will dry out faster, so we can hit a point where fire conditions are critical sooner,” Kunkel says.
Fox says the NEMAC team has been in conversation with area municipalities about climate migration and ways to mitigate the hazards of growth. The group helped the city of Asheville develop its Climate Resilience Assessment and a resource guide for residents, both of which discuss strategies for wildfires and landslides. And in Polk County, local leaders reached out after major landslides in 2018 killed several residents and knocked out a main road.
Still, Fox says, the relatively long time scale of climate change’s impacts can make it difficult for governments to treat the problem as urgent. “It does take some of these pain points for people to get to that point of the conversation,” he admits.
“You can understand why we as a society are having difficulty with this, because it is asking us to change our view of normal, and then to change,” he continues. “We as a species do not like to change.”