10 Years After Sandy, Renters Remain Most Vulnerable to the Impacts of Climate Change

When Hurricane Sandy touched down in the northeastern United States 10 years ago, it was considered an anomaly: an unfortunate curiosity that meteorologists dubbed a “Frankenstorm.” Sandy claimed the lives of 233 people in eight countries, 150 of which were in the United States, including 43 New Yorkers. Its wind and waves damaged scores of homes, leaving an estimated 70,000 housing units uninhabitable in New York, a city with an already tight housing market. Thousands became homeless—at least for a time. Low-income tenants, in particular, had few options when their homes were destroyed.

Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded: more than three times the size of Hurricane Katrina. It was also among the most costly, leaving a trail of roughly $70 billion in damages across the United States and $19 billion in New York. While Sandy was downgraded from hurricane to “superstorm” by the time it made landfall in the city, it brought the five boroughs to a standstill. Storm surge flooded 51 square miles, or 17 percent of the city, and salt water corroded bridges, tunnels, and subway infrastructure. It has taken nearly a decade to fix.

In the aftermath of Sandy, New York responded by establishing a Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, developing berms and levees along its shorelines, and restoring wetlands. Large-scale plans focus heavily on preventing coastal flooding in the financial centers of the city, particularly in Lower Manhattan. Despite these investments, low-income tenants remain acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In the decade since the storm, new research by the Citizens Housing Planning Council has shown that nearly 25 percent of New York City’s residential stock lies within a stormwater flood zone and is at risk of “catastrophic flooding.” Since Sandy, it has become more clear that no one is immune to the impacts of climate change. At this point, it’s more a question of who has the means to survive them.

As a result of legacies of redlining and segregation, communities of color and immigrant communities are those at the front lines of climate disaster. Neighborhoods with a legacy of disinvestment and housing discrimination tend to have fewer trees and more pavement, which leads to streets that are hotter and more likely to flood. Recent findings by climate researchers show that across the country, redlined neighborhoods are on average 4.7 degrees hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods in the same city. These neighborhoods also tend to have a higher concentration of renters than owners, both in market-rate and public housing. Fifty-five percent of those who applied for FEMA aid in the aftermath of Sandy in New York City were renters, and public housing communities sustained serious damage. Today, New York City Housing Authority tenants are still particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change compared with other renters in the city: By 2050, 26 percent of New York’s public housing is projected to lie within the 100-year floodplain.

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