Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, New Yorkers have been dying in their homes at ten times the usual rate. Occupants of the crowded public housing buildings overseen by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) have been one of the hardest hit, in a city that remains the epicenter of the virus to date.

Poverty and lack of access to primary healthcare are some of the main reasons Covid-19 is having such a huge impact on the public housing system. Yet, there is another crisis looming large that will have devastating effects on the public housing system: climate change.

The effects of global warming on New York had some impact on the ferocity of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. This created climate migrants, directly and indirectly, further crowding the public housing apartments.

Rising sea levels have also made these public apartments even less healthy due to the rise in mold formation in these buildings across the city. People now have to live with the risk of raising children that will develop respiratory problems such as asthma or risk becoming homeless.

Unfortunately, New York’s vulnerable public housing is still not adequately prepared for further devastating effects of climate change in the near future.

Coastal New York City’s Vulnerability to the Effects of Climate Change

This is what New York might look like in the future as sea levels rise

When superstorm Sandy hit New York, it killed 43 people and injured many more. The city’s infrastructure was also affected heavily as transportation facilities were also shut down. Homeowners were also hard hit. The storm surge, which was up to 14 feet in some places, flooded around 90,000 buildings. Many of these property owners never recovered.

After the hurricane, the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report was released. The report highlighted the city’s vulnerability to heatwaves, more powerful rainstorms, and seawater flooding. Another report states that water surges of seven-and-a-half feet will become more frequent by 2030, occurring every five years.

If carbon emissions continue to increase at the current pace, temperatures are expected to rise across the state by 3 degrees Fahrenheit within this decade and by up to 9 degrees by 2080. If the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctic melt by as much as projections suggest, the sea level could rise by up to 55 inches which would make flooding a regular occurrence across coastal New York.

If Coastal New York City succumbs to the impacts of climate change over the next few decades, the public housing scheme may come under even heavier strain.

Is New York City’s Public Housing Prepared for another Storm Today?

The FDR Drive flooded next to Manhattan neighborhood East Village.

A year before Sandy hit, a study of NYCHA’s needs showed that the agency needed $16.6 billion for repairs and renovations over a period of five years. The NYCHA estimated that it needed to complete more than 280,000 repairs in 2011 alone—with eight pending work orders per apartment.

This was the situation before Sandy hit in 2012. To date, the NYCHA is still dealing with the fallout, and residents have been forced to live in dangerously unhealthy conditions. Preparedness for another storm feels like a pipe dream at this point.

In the months after Sandy, there was a lot of discussion around the city’s disaster preparedness. Some of it included talks about building levees, floodgates, sea walls, building oyster beds, and barrier islands in New York harbor and developing wetlands in Manhattan that can absorb storm surge in the future.

The Integrated Flood Protection System (IFPS)—a plan to raise streets, improve drainage, and install floodwalls in Red Hook—was also marked for completion by 2016. Today, however, most of these discussions and plans remain on paper. Instead of the IFPS, Red Hook got a barrier of sandbags and tubes that will only hold up in very mild coastal storm surges.

In 2014, the Federal Government agreed to pay $335 million for the construction of the “Big U”. The project will create a 10-mile barrier extending around the southern half of Manhattan. However, it is still unclear where the funding will come from.

So, while the city understands what it needs to do to prepare for another storm (as shown by the various paper plans), it is still grossly underprepared to deal with another Hurricane Sandy, and indeed, some of the future expected impacts of global warming.

Rising sea levels bring mold to NYCHA Apartments

A cutout of Weathering The Storm, a 2014 survey report on how flooding, especially after a superstorm like Sandy, can worsen mold issues.

Residents across various apartments managed by the NYCHA are witnessing a rise in the spread of mold across their apartments. This has led to hundreds of lawsuits against the NYCHA over the last four years.

The neglected infrastructure in most of the public buildings makes them more vulnerable to climate change impacts such as storms. A leaking roof, for example, makes an apartment vulnerable to water damage—leading to further mold growth.

A 2014 survey showed how flooding, especially after a superstorm like Sandy, can worsen mold issues. In the survey, 45% of the respondents reported seeing mold in their apartments after the storms. This is in line with the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as well as after Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Climate change is expected to bring more coastal flooding and rainfall, as well as more intense and more frequent hurricanes. These are perfect conditions for the continued spread of mold in New York City’s public housing structures.

This is a huge cause for concern for the residents because a study found some connection between mold and the development of respiratory problems such as Asthma. Although the evidence is not enough to state that mold is a direct cause of asthma in children, it is worrying that there are far more reported cases of asthma in the public houses in comparison to richer neighborhoods.

Asthma was also responsible for 30 out of 1,000 emergency room visits in a census tract that included NYCHA buildings such as Red Hook. This is in comparison to the state average of 18.

New York’s Climate Change Fight Plan May Not Carry Everyone Along

Frequently asked questions about the Green New Deal

In 2019, New York passed its version of the Green New Deal designed to ensure a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 and an 85% reduction by 2050. Experts are, however, skeptical about how the state intends to meet its targets.

One sector that opposes the deal is the real estate industry. Buildings account for 67% of emissions and some players in the industry suggest that it is difficult to adhere to the new legislation using the existing technologies of today.

Another group of New Yorkers that may not be carried along in the City’s climate change fight is smaller communities like the Hunts Point where climate change discussions can’t be held without the quality of life being discussed first.

If the Green New Deal is to have the impact expected, the city can’t afford to leave anyone behind in the climate change conversations. The real estate industry especially, and these smaller communities around the city have to receive far more attention than they are currently getting.

New York Needs a Green New Deal for Public Housing

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking to attendees at a rally for Bernie Sanders in Council Bluffs, Iowa, before the Vermont senator dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. Photo courtesy: Matt A.J.

In November 2019, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Public Housing Green New Deal Act in Congress. The focus of the bill is on ensuring that funds for essential repairs in public housing would be released faster.

If the buildings are retrofitted, they’ll be more energy-efficient, and improve the quality of life for residents. The Public Housing Green New Deal Act addresses the needs of the working-class community while tackling climate change.

For the wider Green New Deal to deliver results, legislation like the Public Housing Green New Deal Act have to get the attention they deserve.

Conclusion

New York’s public housing system is an important fixture in the city’s architecture. With more than 400,000 residents relying on it, there has to be a real show of determination to improve the lives of inhabitants as quickly as possible, while ensuring preparedness to face the impacts of climate change.

Putting the buildings in a shape that supports healthy living will also improve the city’s climate-friendliness as water-tight roofs and sealed walls, for example, can help reduce energy consumption across these housing developments. If nothing is done to improve the integrity of the structures being made, the NYCHA may find it difficult to deal with the aftermath of another superstorm.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.