Affordable Housing: 'In the Direct Path of Climate Change'

Managers of affordable housing at the deadly northern end of Ida's path review what worked, what didn't, and what we might need to abandon altogether.

October 29, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By LM_Ortiz

New York Basement Apartment

littlenySTOCK / Shutterstock

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida struck the Northeast in early September, the region was inundated by devastating flash floods. Across four states, the storm killed more than 40 people, caused up to $24 billion in property damage, and knocked out power to 150,000 homes. New Jersey and New York City were hit particularly hard—30 New Jersey residents drowned in their homes and vehicles, and in NYC, 13 residents died, most drowning in their basement apartments.

The storm exceeded expectations for a 500- to 1,000-year rainfall event, according to researchers at Cornell’s Northeast Region Climate Center. The event’s improbability helps to explain why the region’s infrastructure was so ill-prepared for the rapid influx of water. But extreme storms like Ida will not be so rare in the future, and our cities, along with their affordable housing stock, will need to adapt.

A New York City panel on climate change forecasts that, by 2050, what is now classified as a “100-year flood” will occur three times more often in New York City. Sea levels will rise by 30 inches, and there will be up to five days each year with more than 2 inches of precipitation. The panel also expects the number of days that top 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the city to triple by 2050, posing public health risks from extreme heat.

The climate crisis presents an existential threat the world over, and it’s bumping up against the affordable housing crisis in expensive metropolitan areas like New York City. The city’s population is projected to grow from 8.8 million residents to 9.2 million by 2050. That growth is expected to concentrate in the Bronx and Brooklyn, two boroughs that saw massive flooding during Ida.

As demand for housing rises, preventing climate-related disasters from eroding the already-scarce supply of affordable housing will be critical, says Laurie Schoeman, national director of resilience and disaster recovery at Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise), a nonprofit that works to address the housing affordability crisis through policy, programming, and capital investment.

“A lot of existing affordable housing is exposed to extreme climate risk, in flood zones, in areas that are apt to burn, or in drought zones,” says Schoeman. “These units are in the direct path of climate change and they’re facing extinction.”

So, how can we protect our existing affordable housing stock from more frequent and extreme weather events, and build new housing that can withstand the effects of a warming climate? And what lessons can Ida offer to affordable housing managers and owners whose properties are at risk?

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