Plans for Housing in the Age of Climate Change Should Include This Tool

As extreme weather patterns in our country become less of an anomaly, the plight of people living in storm-prone places is of increasing concern. Emotional ties to place and family history aside, many people who survive storms and must clean up and dry out with greater regularity often cannot afford any of the options to move, make their homes more flood-proof, or pay high flood insurance premiums. With this scenario, insurance becomes a place where equity and climate change hit up against each other.

On the East Coast, homeowners and renters alike still feel the effects of Hurricane Sandy, four years later. Residents of public housing in New York City’s outer boroughs complain of still-roped-off construction areas, leaks and mold in their apartments, and the impact “temporary” boilers have on noise level and air quality. And earlier this month in Missouri, flooding due to rain that caused historic highs of several of the state’s rivers led to several deaths, hundreds of local road closures, and over 70 miles of closures on I-44. Storm season is indeed getting longer, stronger, and affecting larger swaths of the country.

As Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy said at a Journalists Forum last month, “All urban planning needs to account for sea level rises. We need to do scenario planning.” A mandate like that means planners, advocates, and policy makers need the right tools, but what they have had up to now has been inadequate.

To address these needs, NYU’s Furman Center has designed FloodzoneData.us, a database that presents estimates of the populations and housing stock in the floodplains at a national level—with the ability to drill down to the county and census tract level. This means that accurate characteristics of the people and the housing in the floodplains—from unit size, to age, to level of subsidy, and tenure—can be analyzed, before solutions are designed.

While the tool is designed in part to help states and municipalities make the case for much-needed federal investment for storm damage remediation and planning, it can only go so far—namely, as far as the government does. This is because The Federal Emergency Management Office creates and maintains Flood Insurance Rate Maps, which are what the tool references, and which also support the National Flood Insurance Program. The maps divide the United States into two zones based on flood risk, with one zone having a 1 percent probability of flooding annually, the other, a .2 probability. But the Furman Center points out that the maps do not take future sea level rise into account, or the regularity with which vulnerable areas experience debilitating flooding from high tides and less severe storms. This lapse undoubtedly affects insurance coverage, and in turn the homeowners who are falling in the gap between science’s knowledge of the pace of climate change, and the federal government’s inaction in spite of it.

The Furman Center is highlighting the release of the tool with a series of briefs that will call attention to the scope of needs of the population and housing stock most at risk of flooding; describe the different types of housing in the floodplains and their characteristics; and the characteristics of the people at risk, including their age, race and ethnicity, and income, among other things.

Not long ago, climate change was an abstract theory to most of our population, but now, nightly news stories of towns under water and dramatic rescues provide context to the threat. This resource lays out our housing vulnerabilities, and will hopefully provide a road map to local plans that are solution-driven. As we advocate for more housing and more resilient communities, we must keep in mind that the housing we build should be resilient, as well. As Gina McCarthy, a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency said at the same Journalist Forum, “Cities and towns can keep the momentum [of responding to climate change] moving forward. They don’t have to be stupid just because the federal government is.”

(Image, NYU Furman Center)

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