At least 11 New Yorkers drowned in basement apartments after the remnants of Hurricane Ida opened the heavens and flooded New York City.
In the aftermath, Mayor Bill de Blasio – in one of his worst moments of macho hubris – admitted he has no plan to address illegal basement apartments that likely number in the tens of thousands. “We don’t have an immediate solution for this one,” he said, virtually shrugging his shoulders and raising his palms skyward.
In fact, his administration had created – and then defunded – an important program that would have helped make basement apartments safer and legal. A robust roll-out of that program could have saved lives.
It’s an open secret that the housing affordability crisis has driven low-income New Yorkers and working-class families to live in below grade, illegal apartments. It’s also widely known that illegal dwellings put extra money in the pockets of small landlords.
As we look toward a new city government, and plan for an inclusive recovery out of the pandemic and recession, the next mayor must tackle housing affordability in a comprehensive way prioritizing those least served by the current housing system. We must find solutions to this problem, in the name of climate justice. Fewer financial resources mean facing climate change is even harder for New York City communities of color, which increasingly bear the brunt of extreme heat and other weather events.
City Hall has a responsibility to lead the rest of the nation by example. Not only should the upgrade/legalization program be re-funded and expanded, but let’s give consideration to the idea of moving illegal basement dwellers into empty hotels and office buildings emptied by COVID-era remote work.
Other ideas: we must implement congestion pricing to raise money for subway improvements that prevent flooding. We should also promote the benefits of electric vehicles, and find a way to put 25,000 rooftop solar arrays on schools and city government buildings to help lower their carbon footprint.
And we must be better prepared for the next storm that is certain to come. The more attention that the media, activists and citizens pay to the housing affordability crisis, climate change and extreme weather, the harder it will be for City Hall and Albany to ignore the struggles of average, working-class citizens until it’s too late.
The mayor blamed meteorologists for his administration’s poor Hurricane Ida preparedness, saying their forecasts “are made a mockery of in a matter of minutes.” He added, “No one’s seen a scenario like this,” and suggested there was inadequate warning of Ida’s impending deluge.
Not true. New York City has experienced the steady march of climate change for years, and our aging infrastructure cannot keep up. That is the lesson of Hurricane Ida, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Tropical Storm Floyd in 1998. And even before the frequency and velocity of storms increased, the streets of eastern Queens and some New York City Transit subways lines had a deserved reputation for routinely being awash in floodwater.
Ironically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Service released a landmark study in support of racial climate justice the same day that Ida wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey. The study found that people of color bear a disproportionate burden of the negative health and environmental impacts from flooding, severe heat and extreme weather events. Latinx individuals are 43 percent more likely to live in communities that will lose work hours because of intense heat, and Black people will suffer significantly higher mortality rates, the study said.
This report drives home a simple fact: climate change risks are not equally distributed across New York City. Black and Latinx communities in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx find themselves in the way of some of the worst effects.
Separately, the National Climate Assessment, published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, “focuses on the disproportionate and unequal risks that climate change is projected to have on communities that are least able to anticipate, cope with, and recover from adverse impacts.” It notes that people “who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”
It follows that low-income households use more than twice the proportion of their total income on food, energy and household needs as high-income households — and that spending will continue to rise as climate change increases the prices of those necessities, further exacerbating the wealth gap.
Mayor de Blasio championed a $10 billion plan to protect the lower Manhattan coastline. What’s good for Manhattan should be good for the outer boroughs. We cannot ignore the poor and moderate-income families in the boroughs least prepared to deal with climate-driven changes.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.