“Hurricane Sandy damaged 10% of the city’s homes. In a city with a 4.5% vacancy rate, even a temporary loss of housing supply isn’t just a problem for those directly displaced: it tightens the market for everyone, which makes it more difficult and more expensive to find accommodation. »
Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy caused a wave of flooding that killed 43 people, knocked out power to more than 2 million New Yorkers and damaged the homes of 850,000 people. The storm changed New York in many ways: flood maps were redrawn, building codes revised, and executives of engineers worked to adapt the city’s shoreline. The federal government has provided more than $18 billion to the city to repair damage and mitigate climate risks. Yet more New Yorkers than ever are vulnerable to displacement due to extreme weather.
It is misleading to describe climate disasters as external shocks to the system. These devastating events reveal that the government and housing markets are failing New Yorkers every day. Whatever the weather, Sandy’s recovery experience has made it clear that the toolkit of disaster recovery programs is not designed to, and in the case of some programs, not even permitted, to fix persistent problems. housing that make people vulnerable to climate disasters.
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Sandy changed New York in many ways, including dramatically worsening the city’s chronic housing shortage. In 2012, before Sandy, more than 45,000 New Yorkers sought emergency shelter each night. Over the past decade, that number has only grown: every night, the shelter’s population exceeds 60,000 people.
Hurricane Sandy damaged 10% of the city’s homes. In a city with a vacancy rate of 4.5%, even a temporary loss of housing supply isn’t just a problem for those directly displaced: it tightens the market for everyone, making it more difficult and more expensive the search for accommodation. Decades of failure have created this inequality and insecurity, and federal disaster recovery programs are doing nothing to address this challenge.
New York is a city of tenants: more than 60% of New Yorkers rent their homes. Yet federal tools to help tenants are limited, cumbersome to administer, and rarely expand the supply of affordable housing. Without more housing, tenants are forced into greater financial and physical precariousness. Disaster recovery programs do not recognize the conditions of economic captivity created by housing market failure. As a result, renters, and low-income residents in general, experience restrictions on their mobility in the housing market and get stuck in the flood zone.
Columbia University’s Frontlines Community Project investigated relationship between federal post-disaster recovery spending and housing inequality in New York City neighborhoods affected by Sandy. The researchers found that rents were rising across the city, but rents in Sandy-flooded neighborhoods were accelerating at a faster rate and, in particular, communities that were once relatively affordable places to live were becoming just as expensive than neighborhoods that weren’t flooded at all.
These market changes were not evenly distributed among the flooded neighborhoods. While gross rents declined in some majority white neighborhoods, all majority non-white neighborhoods saw an increase in gross rents. Compared to majority white neighborhoods, median home values accelerated at a faster rate in majority nonwhite neighborhoods.
The New York experience is not unique. Over the past 10 years, the United States has experienced at least 10 weather-related disasters that each caused more than $1 billion in damage. Describing damages in dollars underestimates the multi-generational impacts of housing loss and insecurity created by climatic events. Since Hurricane Ian last month, the 2018 Campfire in California, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, affordable housing has been permanently lost and not created elsewhere.
Federal disaster recovery tools, focusing primarily on restoring pre-storm housing conditions, especially repairing and rebuilding single-family homes, disproportionately help white, middle-class homeowners. Programs that could significantly help renters, such as FEMA’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are not offered. And new incentives for housing construction, such as expanded tax credit programs or even direct subsidies; are rarely included in each disaster’s specific allocation by Congress.
Most people don’t want to live in danger – there just aren’t enough climate-safe places to live. Building affordable housing should be an important part of disaster recovery, but the focus on getting places back to how they were rather than how they should be has created a quagmire of regulations. It is therefore extremely difficult for cities to build back better. It’s time for FEMA and HUD to consider the development of new affordable housing as climate risk mitigation.
We are now in an era of perpetual housing insecurity. Therefore, we need federal climate policies tailored to the local context, including the housing market. We need aggressive regulatory reform to outlaw Jim Crow remnants and the myriad local, state, and federal laws that impede equitable disaster recovery. There are no more disasters, we are one now, until we build our way out and make safe, efficient and affordable housing an inalienable human right.
The authors are staff members of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University: Deborah Helaine Morris is an adjunct assistant professor and researcher in urban planning; Thaddeus Pawlowski is managing director, researcher and adjunct associate professor at the school’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes; Hugo Sarmiento is a lecturer in urban planning.