As temperatures soar, wildfires burn, and sea levels rise, a new company, Habitable, has been launched to help house hunters navigate this ecologically disastrous new world order. Habitable is, so it says, a platform to “empower homeowners and home buyers to make informed decisions about properties they live in or want to live in.”
What this means in practice is a Web site where anyone can type in their address and measure the likelihood of their home being destroyed by flood, heat, drought, or fire. (“Mosquito risk” has just been added.) It’s combined with a weekly newsletter that outlines a topical climate threat—say, Canadian wildfires—and features some for-sale, or just-sold, properties vaguely relevant to the theme. (For example: “We check if Amy Schumer’s new Brooklyn Heights brownstone might burn.”)
The aim seems to be to mix property envy with climate-change angst to create a form of real-estate disaster porn that seems eminently fitting for our anxiety-riven, post-coronavirus world.
Habitable was founded by Ann Marie Gardner, who made waves in 2013 with her quarterly print magazine, Modern Farmer. Based out of Hudson, New York, where Gardner still lives, the magazine caught the farm-to-table Zeitgeist to become a peculiar, and short-lived, hit.
Modern Farmer’s cover stars were beautifully photographed hens with red cockscombs glistening, or wise-looking floppy-eared goats, or jewel-like heirloom tomatoes spread out as if for a Tiffany shoot. The magazine attracted heavy hitters—Bill Clinton was interviewed about food security—while running features on “the secret to better soil” and “the best miniature milk cows” that gave detailed, if very niche, farming advice.
This mixture of luxury and earnestness saw it praised and skewered in equal measure. Gardner added fuel to the fire when Harper’s Bazaar ran a photo spread of her milking cows while wearing Gucci and Vera Wang. Nevertheless, Modern Farmer won a National Magazine Award and was reported to have had a circulation of some 100,000, although most of its readers seemed to be apartment-dwelling, Brooklyn hipsters, yearning for a few acres of land, an antique hand plow, and a flock of Nigerian dwarf goats.
Gardner added fuel to the fire when Harper’s Bazaar ran a photo spread of her milking cows while wearing Gucci and Vera Wang.
Gardner left the magazine in 2014 after a tussle with the publication’s patron, and eventually print publication was suspended, in 2018. But despite the comical absurdity of its romanticized luxury-farming aesthetic, Gardner had shown she could satisfy an appetite many people didn’t know they had. With her new project it’s just possible she’s identified another deep-seated, if more apocalyptic, yearning.
Gardner says she spent lockdown absorbed in “real-estate porn and Zillow scrolling.” Having immersed herself in the “community of climate-change real-estate nerds,” she saw untapped potential in the climate-risk algorithms originally marketed for insurance and investment companies. With the help of data scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, Habitable was born. “We all kind of look at it like we’re watching a car accident until it hits us,” Gardner says of the growing number of natural disasters. She hopes Habitable will help answer the question “How do we live in the new weather?”
On the face of it, Habitable seems to want to add one more factor—total annihilation—to the compendium of anxieties already associated with purchasing a home. However, Habitable’s lighthearted tone tries to negate the life-threatening nature of the issues being raised, which Gardner says is intentional.
It’s a fine line to tread. Gardner is keenly aware that having to think about whether or not your forever home is destined to burn down is depressing to most, “so why can’t it be an experience that doesn’t have to suck?” A few weeks ago, the newsletter included both an $18.5 million private island in Muskoka, Ontario, which Gardner described as “an island for your not-on-Fyre festival”—the Canadian compound has “moderate” heat and mosquito risks, but you should be in the clear from fire, flooding, and droughts—and a $150,000 fixer-upper in Louisville, Kentucky: a “teeny house” with “teeny risk,” aside from a few mosquitoes and a whopping 9/10 heat score, that is.
Habitable’s targeted demographic is, she says, people like her Web engineer—a twentysomething Williams postgrad who can’t figure out where to start his life. Gardner’s sincerity is palpable, but this concern has yet to be articulately incorporated into Habitable. While property is a hot-button issue for millennials and Generation Z–ers, it’s more because they can’t afford to buy homes than because they are afraid of them being destroyed in a flood. But Habitable prefers to ignore that troublesome point. Where can I buy a safe and stylish summer home, you ask? Habitable suggests going to East Hampton, where one can be snapped up for just $55 million.
“How can we have a habitable life? How can we have a stylish life? How can we do it in a thoughtful way?,” Gardner asks. But if you’re coming to Habitable for real guidance, you’re not really going to get an answer. “I’m not going to change consumerism right now,” says Gardner in her defense. “I’m not going to change socioeconomic demographics. That’s why I do a really wide range [of properties],” she says, but the homes her site does recommend generally seem to be eight-figure Brooklyn brownstones or small shacks in Kentucky. Perhaps that will appeal to some, but exactly who is less certain. As of now, Habitable seems well meaning but impractical and very easy to mock. “It’s very Modern Farmer,” Gardner says proudly.
Lucy Horowitz is the Deputy Research Editor at AIR MAIL