LONG BEACH ISLAND, N.J. — Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more.

In the fall, the owner charged me $15 to come down on weekends. Some years, I stayed until November, long after the summer renters retreated to the suburbs and the salt marsh turned the color of rust. There was no heat in the surf shack and when the temperature dipped into the 40s, as it sometimes did in nor’easters, I’d throw on a sweater and huddle next to the electric stove. After surfing, I took long, hot showers in the outdoor shower and crawled into a sleeping bag.

I was thinking about all of this while working on a new book about the coasts and the extraordinary risks posed by climate change and rising seas. There is more than $3 trillion worth of property straddling the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, according to my analysis of thousands of property records. Much of it is second homes and investment property on low-lying barrier islands and coastal floodplains vulnerable to storms and floods. The cost to federal taxpayers to repair the damage is soaring — $500 billion in the last two decades alone – and will only continue to rise. Coastal flooding and federal insurance payments are also rising dramatically and now account for about three-quarters of all flood losses nationally.

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth.

Decades ago, when author Gilbert Gaul was a teenager, he rented this surf shack with friends in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. The rent? $187.50 each for the whole summer.
Via Gilbert Gaul
Decades ago, when author Gilbert Gaul was a teenager, he rented this surf shack with friends in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. The rent? $187.50 each for the whole summer.

The land rush at the beach has inverted the economics, with the sand beneath the houses often worth far more than the houses themselves. To justify their huge investments, buyers are compelled to tear down old, small houses and build vastly larger retreats with five and six bedrooms, entertainment centers, and pools built right into the decks.

Real estate records highlight the shift. In the 1960s, the average bungalow on Long Beach Island was about 600 square feet. By the 1980s, it was about 1,500 square feet. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the average grew to about 3,000 square feet, which is about 500 square feet larger than the typical home in the American suburbs.

You might think that after a storm wrecks tens of thousands of houses, the way Sandy did, causing over $70 billion in damage, owners would retreat to higher ground. They didn’t. Instead, they built back bigger, stronger houses in the same location. Joseph H. Mancini, a mayor and custom developer on Long Beach Island, told me his typical client is now a hedge-fund manager, Wall Street financier, or high-tech executive. “My phone usually starts ringing in December when they hand out the bonuses,” he said.

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

Even in peak summer months, a surprising number of the new, suburban-style beach “cottages” are empty for days or weeks at a time. The owners are busy working and the kids are away at sports camps or polishing their college resumés. Meanwhile, year-round populations on many barrier islands are plummeting, as older owners cash out or are driven away by the high taxes. Long Beach Island has lost half its population since 1980, Census data show. There aren’t enough schoolchildren to field one Little League team.

I was lucky to rent a surf shack when there were still some. It allowed me to live by the ocean at a time I didn’t have much money. It also changed the way I think about the coast. I view our seashores as public assets, not investment holdings in private portfolios. In my view, they belong to everyone, including day-trippers and working-class families.

I know this probably isn’t in sync with the current economic zeitgeist, but maybe it’s time to rethink our approach. How about a tiny-house movement at the beach? Instead of allowing more McMansions, towns can set aside a little space for 300-square-foot cottages for the next generation of beach lovers. There’s also a side benefit. When the next hurricane knocks down those cottages, they can be rebuilt cheaply and quickly, and federal taxpayers will get a break.

Gilbert M. Gaul is a former Inquirer reporter and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. His new book, “The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas and the Cost of America’s Coasts,” is being published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.