“It hurts my heart,” she said. “I want my kids to be able to get their foot in the door and establish a homestead, and then potentially buy a bigger house when they get married and have kids. But it doesn’t seem like they can even afford that first house.”
Duluth is not the only city in America that’s been branded a climate refuge, and others, like Buffalo, have leaned into the label with outreach and marketing campaigns. But in Duluth, Mayor Emily Larson is distancing herself from the idea.
“The idea that we are so ignoring the needs of our planet that people have to move is terrifying. It’s dystopian,” she said in an interview at Duluth’s city hall, a grand, cavernous granite building with Doric columns and arched windows. Built in 1928 as part of a Beaux-Arts civic center, it sits in the heart of Duluth’s now blighted downtown, where cocktail bars and co-working spaces form a checkerboard with abandoned storefronts. “I don’t want to prey on that.”
Ms. Larson, the city’s first female mayor, is in her second term and has made sustainability initiatives — reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions; investing in solar power — a cornerstone of her administration. She estimates that Duluth, whose current population is shy of 87,000 people, has infrastructure to accommodate 130,000. But its housing stock is aging, and limited — affordable housing is scarce, and in 2021, its rental housing vacancy rate was a mere 2 percent.
Before inviting an influx of new residents, Ms. Larson said, the city needs to build for its current ones, or as she put it, “put our own oxygen mask on first.” They need to create more multifamily units, she said, and rehab many of the city’s older structures that are in disrepair.
“People need climate refuge, but there’s the potential of a seismic conflict. So far, we’re navigating it,” she said.