color photograph of a man wading through floodwater that comes to his knees. he holds a bird in a cage and covers his face as he passes a red-painted wall
Watsonville, California March 14, 2023-Herbeto Estrada rescues his two birds from his home who have not eaten since Friday along Salinas Road in Pajaro Tuesday. (Wally Skalij/(Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Over the course of four winter months in California this past year, 14 atmospheric rivers inundated the state. But it wasn’t the rain from these “rivers in the sky” that damaged 900 homes and structures in the small town of Pajaro; it was the levee intended to keep the water back. The unincorporated Monterey County community, which sits just outside of the agricultural city of Watsonville, was devastated. 

In the weeks after, state and federal officials and agencies made the rounds, a kind of boots-on-the-ground press tour intended to signal that relief and change were forthcoming. And some material changes did occur: evictions were halted through Aug. 31 because flooded fields meant that there was little work for farmworkers, who make up a majority of residents. Grassroots organizations and mutual aid groups also offered food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities to people who had lost most of their belongings.

But the response could be characterized as inaction in the weeks and months after. Advocates noted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding and support provided one-time payments that barely covered living expenses. Making matters worse, advocates reported that FEMA agents sent to the site couldn’t communicate with Pajaro’s many Spanish-speaking residents. Nearby counties felt little responsibility to residents displaced along their borders. 

Just two months earlier, Gov. Gavin Newsom cut tens of millions in floodplain restoration from the state’s proposed budget. This was sorely needed funding across the state’s Central Valley, which evolved as floodable wetlands—meaning that flooding is not only a part of the region’s ecology, but that it would require massive restructuring of the land to cease deluging the low-lying areas. While Newsom restored the funding in his May budget revision, there was little flooded residents could do to push back against the systemic silence and disinvestment they faced. Why? Because they lived in an unincorporated community.

With no local government, no utility structure, or public works department, most disadvantaged unincorporated communities sit on the outskirts of incorporated towns and have to fight for basic resources or live without them. This is not an aberration of public policy. Experts say that disadvantaged unincorporated communities are a function of how the U.S. divvies up land, builds infrastructure, and decides housing policy. 

“People feel neglected”

An estimated 30% of U.S. residents live in unincorporated towns disinvested of resources. Without the basic entities of a governing structure and a tax base, it’s extraordinarily difficult to address climate-change impacts, said Olga Morales-Pate, chief executive officer of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). The national organization assists rural communities with environmental, communal, and economic development. 

RCAP also works with disadvantaged unincorporated communities to develop a utility structure, petition for incorporation, or apply for funding grants. The median household for an unincorporated community that Morales-Pate’s organization works with is about $30,000. For a family of four, that’s right at the federal poverty level. It should be said that California has the third-highest cost of living by state in the country with about 12% of people living in poverty.

As the consequences of our rapidly changing climate system bare their teeth, coupled with a continued investment in practices that destroy forests, soil, and wetlands—those with the least suffer the most. 

This is especially true when it comes to flooding, a climate disaster that disproportionately impacts Black residents and low-income residents, given the financial burden of flood-related repairs and the challenge of acquiring flood insurance. FEMA flood maps account only for one-third of the country’s flood-prone areas, and residents are only eligible for federal insurance if their home has been mapped. Even if they are eligible, it can be expensive—especially for families living at or below the poverty line. 

In the aftermath of a storm, flood, or levee breach in a place like Pajaro, majority-BIPOC residents of unincorporated communities are forced further to contend with the economic precarity created by unfair municipal dichotomies in which resources generally only flow in one direction. 

“People feel neglected,” said Eloy Ortiz, the special projects manager for the climate justice organization Regeneración Pajaro Valley, which is working with recovering communities in Pajaro. “People feel like they’re unwanted.”

For decades before the March 2023 levee failure, there were warning signs about Pajaro’s infrastructure. In part, the breach occurred because federal officials were of the opinion that it didn’t make financial sense to spend millions of dollars to repair the ailing levee in a low-income area. Ortiz said that federal and state funding has been earmarked for levee repair since 2021. Construction on the eight-year project would start next summer, but according to Ortiz many residents feel that it’s too little too late. One glimmer of hope comes from a bill introduced by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, who represents part of the Central Coast encompassing Pajaro. Introduced to the California legislature on Aug. 29, the bill would allocate millions more to speed up that repair in time for this winter.

Relying on developers for infrastructure 

In California, residents of unincorporated communities are often forced to rely on industry towns nearby. The Coachella Valley is home to a number of unincorporated communities. The majority of residents are Latinx and employed by nearby farms. Agriculture is the second-largest source of income for the area, generating about $1 billion for the region. But farmworkers see little of that economic prosperity, said Yaneth Andrade-Magaña, who works on water access issues for unincorporated communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley as part of her work with Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation. 

“We don’t see that money being invested back into the communities,” Andrade-Magaña said. “They don’t have their own government to make sure that they are being advocated for.”

In Thermal, Oasis, Mecca, and North Shore—the four unincorporated communities Andrade-Magaña works with—many residents rely on underground wells and septic systems for drinking and wastewater, respectively. They’re not served by municipal water districts, and as such, residents are more susceptible to drought and water contamination from elements like salt and arsenic, Andrade-Magaña said. Though California passed a bill in 2012 affirming that its residents had a right to water, that’s not a reality for residents of unincorporated towns. While a right to water offers some legislative safety net with which to argue for access, there’s still no federal right to housing, plumbing, or food.

Rather than step up to assist communities in paying the fees associated with tapping into nearby water lines, Andrade-Magaña said that the political leadership of surrounding counties are counting on private industry to pick up the slack. If a developer wants to build housing, restaurants, or even a concert venue in the area, they would theoretically have to help front the infrastructure costs associated with that project. This approach comes with the potential for greater harm. A development-first approach to utility access is a near-guarantee of gentrification of the region, Andrade-Magaña said. 

Without developers in the picture, it seems county leadership is unwilling or uninterested in grappling with a central tension of unincorporated communities: the inability to build housing without infrastructure–especially when there’s no public funding for infrastructure without a robust tax base.

This isn’t anything new. Unincorporated communities lack resources even if they belong to more affluent or functional counties. “We can talk about how counties are complicit in a broader system of environmental racism,” said Lucas Belury, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona School of Geography, Development, and Environment. In South Texas, Belury is researching unincorporated communities, known as colonias. 

Cities compete for county resources, and both rely on state and federal funding for building roads and housing, investing in schools, and administering public health projects. But without representation, residents of unincorporated areas get cut out of the conversation. 

Many advocates are of the opinion that “decision makers and county officials do not know that these communities exist,” according to a 2013 Policy Link research paper on unincorporated communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. But if the disrepair of the Pajaro River levee demonstrates anything, it’s that policymakers have long been aware of what’s going on. 

Incorporation is not a silver bullet 

Incorporation would not solve all the environmental and climate issues residents of unincorporated communities already face. As illustrated by what happened in Pajaro, residents of unincorporated communities aren’t just subject to the majority rule of surrounding counties; they’re also recipients of what researchers call the “built environment.” This means that disadvantaged unincorporated communities are likely to be located in areas where infrastructure and construction have made it more challenging to live, potentially exposing residents to higher frequencies of flood and drought. 

An important factor of this built environment is that disinvested majority-BIPOC communities act as a foil for wealth-hoarding white communities that only want to share negative externalities and not the benefits of resources, said Luisa Godinez-Puig, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Controlling land and benefits accrued from amassing resources is historically a tool that was used when outright segregation was legal, she said. 

According to research by University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, professor Danielle Purifoy, majority white incorporated communities are far more likely to be located near amenities like doctors and away from built “disamenities” like landfills, brownfields, or “toxics release inventory” facilities like dry cleaners. For white people living in incorporated municipalities, these disamenities, at least, offer some sort of benefit of service or potential investment, as with brownfield redevelopment projects, which repurpose polluted land with solar panel fields and other much needed infrastructure.

When it comes to siting amenities or offering resources, one of the reasons that incorporation does not offer a silver bullet is because of pervasive economic, social, and political structures that function similarly to the physical built environment. In other words, it’s a system of enveloping and overlapping decisions that perpetuate inequities over and over again. 

For instance, take what Purifoy found regarding access to grocery stores and doctors: “Municipal incorporation appears to have no statistically significant association with the probability of hosting a grocery store for block groups with a population 50% or more Black … [T]he probability of hosting a grocery store is virtually the same for Blacks whether they are located within or outside of a municipality.” This means that incorporation for majority-Black and -Latinx neighborhoods simply doesn’t render the benefits that it otherwise would for majority-white neighborhoods in North Carolina. 

Unincorporation itself isn’t the sole source of disparity. However, deep-seated inequities rise to the surface in unincorporated communities because, as with many things, the harms trickle down, and the benefits are not guaranteed.

“Unincorporated communities are already in a very disadvantaged position, even before any environmental impacts, and it just gets worse [with climate change],” Morales-Pate said. “We’re talking disaster level.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.