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.
While Sandy was considered a freak incident, it exposed long-standing vulnerabilities faced by not only New York City but also American cities writ large. Major climate disasters have become increasingly common over the past decade, and low-income tenants across the world are more likely to suffer the effects of incoming storms. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, if faced with a catastrophic storm, 40 percent of American renters do not have the means to evacuate—more than three times the share of homeowners. Similarly, 40 percent of the rental stock in the United States is at risk of being destroyed or seriously damaged by climate disasters. In a moment in which housing is already deeply unaffordable across the country and evictions are on the rise, any shocks to the housing market can send it spiraling, putting more pressure on prices, and making housing even more unattainable for rent-burdened tenants.
The threat to renters is no longer relegated to the future, nor is it limited to waterfront communities. This reality was made clear in September of 2021, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New York and caused extreme flooding that left abandoned cars littered across highways. While the scale of Sandy was unmatched, the tail end of Ida took the lives of 18 people in the region, 11 of whom drowned in unregulated basement apartments, far from the city’s coastline—victims of both the city’s affordable housing crunch and its aging infrastructure, incapable of handling the deluge of rainfall that has become increasingly common in storms like Ida.
Basement apartments are largely illegal in New York and therefore not regulated for safety. They are also a common and attainable source of affordable housing, often for working-class immigrants, in a city where less than 1 percent of the apartments that rent for less than $1,500 a month are vacant. A 2021 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development—where I am the interim director—found that unregulated housing units in New York City are located predominantly in communities of color with higher levels of rent burden and poverty than the citywide average. Of the 11 people who died in basement apartments during Hurricane Ida, nearly all were working-class Asian and South Asian immigrants living in majority-immigrant neighborhoods.
In addition to difficulties accessing affordable and safe housing, renters all over the city face significant hurdles to accessing aid and avoiding evictions in a disaster’s aftermath, compounding an existing racial wealth gap, since people of color tend to be renters. FEMA recovery funds favor homeowners, who receive more than twice the assistance available to renters, thanks to the Individuals and Households Program, the most common form of FEMA aid. Renters also struggle to find suitable housing that they can afford once they are displaced. After Sandy, the city housed renters in hotels until it evicted them from these sites. In a repetition of disastrous history, some renters are still living in hotels one year after Ida.
At every level of government, there is a lack of urgency around mitigating the impacts of climate disasters, particularly when it comes to protecting those most at risk. Far too many of our leaders continue to act as if these storms are anomalies rather than imminent realities.
When it comes to developing any successful mitigation efforts, safe and affordable housing must be at the forefront of climate resilience. This includes bold steps such as building new no-carbon housing, offering relocation funds to residents living in the danger zone of hurricanes and other natural disasters, and upgrading sewage systems. Federal, state, and local governments can and should take pragmatic steps that ensure tenants’ safety by upgrading FEMA aid policy, with a focus on equity; enacting Good Cause Eviction policies; halting evictions after natural disasters; investing in more affordable-housing units; addressing real estate speculation that leads to displacement, and legalizing basement apartments.
Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call. Our eyes need to remain wide open as we face a new climate reality.