Jan 22, 2018
THEME: Sustainability

What Can You Do with a Sinking Home?

Last week brought news that the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) would redraw its maps to address flooding in New York City, a process that will likely raise insurance rates for thousands of residents and add yet another wrinkle to development in the city. The debate reminded me of a painfully on-point piece from the Onion, “Neighborhood Starting to Get too Safe for Family to Afford.” As the title implies, when we need to make ends meet, we often choose risk over security. Then, as humans do, we grow attached to the places we call home, risk and all.

As an urban planner and analyst, I like to view cities as a collection of systems. FEMA, in doing its job, plays a vital role in those systems. The agency’s chief roles are to prepare disaster-response plans and to mobilize support following major events. FEMA’s mission dovetails with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), created by Congress in 1968. Because floods are as costly as they are unpredictable, the program shoulders the risk of damages in exchange for a nominal fee from at-risk property owners.

For a few decades, the system worked well enough for NFIP to essentially pay for itself. That all changed in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, for which the $18 billion in losses equaled all the premiums paid in the prior fourteen years. Sandy added another $10 billion in losses. And just like that, NFIP was completely, well, underwater in debt, where it remains today. (A bipartisan effort in 2004 tried to reform NFIP, but it turned out to raise premiums more steeply than political will could support.)

In short, since the NFIP can no longer borrow money from the federal government, it needs to recalibrate its own exposure to risk. Addressing the problem requires redrawing the maps to better fit the reality of climate change. Residents will find that they now live in a flood zone, a shocking and costly surprise to home owners (and even to renters, who will likely see the costs passed on by landlords).

It’s important to stress that people in low-income communities take a disproportionately large hit in disasters, and, given the areas that tend to flood, they’re also the ones who most need flood insurance. Yet, these residents are also the least likely to be able to afford that very insurance.

This is a particularly ugly example of a Wicked Problem, a phrase often used in planning or design, where solving a problem—updating flooding maps, say—ends up creating more problems, like displacing minority communities. When we try to grasp each problem, we see how the roots are more intertwined than we ever imagined. It’s my job to expose all those roots.

So there are no good alternatives here. NFIP could adjust their premiums, but if 2004 is any indicator (to say nothing of today’s political climate), supporting those cost adjustments would be toxic. We can’t eliminate NFIP either. It’s quite obvious the American people need it. Nor can the program be privatized—who would buy such a money-loser? And we can’t outlaw living in flood zones, nor is it realistic to move millions of people. Meanwhile, climate change is certain to produce storms of greater severity—remember, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the recent bomb cyclone happened in a single season—so doing nothing is simply not an option.

Reality here boils down to two points. Living in a flood zone is no longer realistic, and we need to prepare for disasters better than we do now. In America, the home of rugged individualism, this is a tough pill to swallow.

But these are the facts. Preparing for the inevitable, as we’re doing with our RELi work, now means supporting the retreat of those in high risk places and restoring wetlands in those spaces. It means designing buildings, roads, sea barriers, levees—our entire built environment—to manage radically shifting climates. It calls for updating risk maps and changing zoning regulations to address surface run-off and permeability.

And it requires that we creatively address the needs of broken communities without displacing their residents, which is perhaps the most wicked of all problems.

AP photo at top by Craig Ruttle. 

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