Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Climate disaster turned these millennials into ‘forever renters’: ‘Being flexible is the new American dream’

Whether you’re a renter, homeowner, or landlord, it’s common knowledge that the pandemic has shifted the housing market: Rent has gone down in cities, many former city commuters have left for small towns, and crowded hardware stores indicate that people are looking to invest in the homes they’re already in.

For some young people thinking about the future, the thought of buying a home is viewed more as a risk than an indicator of economic success. This is especially true in the Bay Area, where the sky-high housing prices and climate change-induced increase in wildfires are making many young people question the importance of buying a home in Northern California or beyond in the first place.

One such young person is Samuel Naujokas, a 23-year-old born in Healdsburg, California, and current graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Naujokas, who grew up in the home that his parents still own in Healdsburg, reflected on his experience during the 2019 Kincade fire that came close to his family home.

“Basically every year [since then] I get a text from my mom asking something like, ‘Alright, evacs are coming in, what do you want saved?'” he said. “And I give them a list of all of the sentimental stuff I want saved, and [my parents] evacuate. I think having to do that for the past four years has made me realize that this is all impermanent.”

Naujokas said since Northern California wildfires began to escalate six years ago, his perspective on what to aspire for has changed – including his future potential for property ownership.

“The constant threat of wildfires taking away my family home has shifted my thoughts on buying property and even what economic success looks like,” Naujokas said. “For me, having that personal, felt experience has informed my own planning on thinking about buying a house.

“Because maybe I don’t want to buy one if it doesn’t have as much meaning as we thought. Maybe there’s something wrong with [the value we place on property ownership] to begin with.”

To Naujokas, the threat of climate change to property is not wildfire-specific. The risk of property ownership is “very distinct with wildfires right now, and when we think of property damage from climate change that’s what comes to mind,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, there’s still going to be different threats wherever you go.”

Before Naujokas started graduate school, he was living in Alaska and looking at climate-change adaptation plans with organizations like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. He learned that the mitigation measures when it comes to the effect of climate change on homes are quite limited.

“Millennials and Gen Zers looking to hold property decades from now are looking at how climate change will affect their investment,” Naujokas said.

Economic success, to Naujokas, is “not so much owning a home and the value of a home.”

“It’s the ability to keep myself safe, and that the people around me are safe too,” he said. “I think that’s a key difference between millennials and Gen Xers – having the people around you factored into your definition of success.”

That lesson became clear to Naujokas during the first wildfire season in California that he experienced.

“Your neighbors are your friends,” he said. “When we all had to evacuate, the town leaders, firefighters, and community members came together, and that’s just going to increase as climate change continues to present unprecedented conditions.”

Another such person is Courtney Beyer. A millennial who grew up in Los Altos, California and currently resides in Menlo Park, California, Beyer and her husband recently bought a home in Traverse City, Michigan, while continuing to rent in Menlo Park with their two small children.

“Last October, the Glass Fires started in Napa while I was pregnant with my second son,” Beyer said. “I read an article about climate migration and areas that will become uninhabitable in the next 80 to 100 years. We did some research and bought a house in Traverse City as both a rental property and a bet that it will be one of the more inhabitable places in the United States.”

Beyer reflected on being at an age where many of her friends are having children and thinking about buying homes in the area, and wondered whether she wanted her kids to grow up in an area exposed to wildfire smoke so regularly.

“One of my friends just bought this beautiful home, but it abuts a piece of land in the hills,” Beyer said. “I couldn’t help but think about the likelihood of wildfires encroaching on the area.”

Like Naujokas, recent regional and global events have majorly shifted how Beyer views property ownership.

“It’s interesting to look at how climate change seems to be affecting people who are the most set in their ways,” Beyer said. “It’s almost as if being flexible is the new American dream.”


This article was written by Sasha Weilbaker from Business Insider and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to