New Yorkers were exposed to the harsh realities of climate change when Superstorm Sandy hit more than two years ago. Those living in coastal neighborhoods like Coney Island and the Rockaways are struggling to deal with the mounting impacts of climate change. But now it’s not just the storms they fear, it’s the rising cost of flood insurance that threatens to drown them.
Come next year, revised flood zone maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) go into effect, expanding the amount of land considered at high-risk of flooding. The new maps will include roughly 60,000 more buildings, according to an analysis by the City Comptroller’s office. The city’s high-risk flood zones will soon be home to 400,457 New Yorkers, an increase of 84% from the current 218,088.
The projected increase in flood insurance premiums is significant. For a typical home in the high-risk zones, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030.
Flood zones have expanded in every borough. The increase is particularly dramatic along the eastern and western edges of Staten Island, and in South Brooklyn and South Queens.
Looming Affordability Crisis
The central concern, shared by City and federal officials, community representatives and most importantly, residents, is the looming insurance affordability crisis. The future of low and middle-income communities in coastal areas throughout the city is now in question.
The effect of the projected insurance rate increases on homeowners will be “devastating,” said Jonathan Gaska, district manager of Queens Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways. “People are forced to make a decision to either raise their homes at an exorbitant price or paying a phenomenal amount of money for insurance,” he said. While he believes the City is trying to help the locals stuck, he added, “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Over one-third of homeowners in the City’s high-risk zones have an annual household income of less than $75,000, reports the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a non-profit working for affordable housing for New Yorkers.
The owners of multi-family buildings in the zones are also vulnerable. Two-thirds of tenants have a household annual income of less than $75,000.
“I’m really worried we’re going to destroy the fabric of these communities,” said City Council member Donovan Richards, a Democrat who represents the Rockaways. The Rockaways already have the third highest notice of foreclosure rate of any community in New York City’s high-risk flood zones.
Calling housing foreclosures a “silent killer” of the community, Richards said, “It’s a mixed community. As someone who lived there, in Ocean Village, paying $860 for a two-bedroom that overlooked the beach, I’m fighting to ensure that these people are protected. I want everyday people to be able to have a beautiful view without being billionaires,” he said.
Rising waters and rising insurance
Homeowners in the city’s greatly expanded high-risk zones will be required to purchase flood insurance (either through the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA or through private insurance providers) if they meet certain federal criteria. For instance, if they have received FEMA assistance in the past, if they have a federally-backed mortgage, if they received a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan or if they are registered with the City’s Build It Back Sandy-recovery program.
For those already on insurance plans, their rates are set to increase owing to legislative changes in the last three years.
Almost two-thirds of the owner-occupied housing units in the high-risk zones have mortgages, says the CNYCN. Homeowners with mortgages who refuse to purchase insurance are usually subject to force-placed insurance where their lender purchases a policy and passes the cost on to them. Those who cannot pay have little choice but to sell their homes.
Why are insurance rates going up? Federal legislation, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, has reduced government subsidies on insurance in order to make the NFIP financially viable.
“I’ve lived here a little over fifteen years but if the rates went up, I’d move out of state,” said Rockaway Park homeowner Paul Fitzgerald, 56, a retired Fire Department Captain who lives in a single-family home with his wife. “The taxes are already killing me. I’d move to a Red state. Costs are going higher and higher here and it’s very difficult to get by.” Fitzgerald has heard rumors of the insurance rate premiums increasing, but so far he has no clarity on how much he may have to pay. He currently pays around $2,000 a year.
The Rockaways are home to many retirees like Fitzgerald and his wife. Living on a fixed income, they’d be among the hardest hit. According to the City, 22 percent of housing units on the Rockaway Peninsula are occupied by senior citizens, aged 65 and older. Almost forty percent of the peninsula’s population receives some form of government “income support” such as cash assistance, Supplemental Security Income, or Medicaid.
Conciliatory efforts may be in vain
Congress has made attempts to limit the impact of the rate hikes through the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014. Applied retroactively, it repealed certain provisions of Biggert-Waters and lowered rate increases that went into effect after July 2012, while preventing future increases in some cases. Many policy-holders who had their rates go up were provided refunds. The Act also set aside resources for an affordability study to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and required FEMA to appoint a Flood Insurance Advocate who would push for fair treatment of NFIP holders.
Most importantly, the Act provided that future rate increases would be gradual for those with currently subsidized rates under the NFIP, with no more than an 18 percent hike each year until a full-risk policy is paid.
Even with these controls, flood insurance rates will rise significantly. For a typical home, granted an 18 percent annual increase and no future changes in federal law, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030. For properties newly mapped into high-risk zones, lower premiums will apply with the same rate of increase.
[Flood insurance rates for commercial properties are not covered by the 2014 Affordability Act and still fall under earlier policies. This spells trouble for small businesses.]
Homeowners could face even higher rates -paying nearly $10,000 a year- if their home elevation is significantly lower than federal requirements. Either that or bear the brunt of elevating their houses for a massive one-time investment.
According to estimates, elevating a single-family home can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000. (Some homes are simply not suitable for elevation. In these cases, homeowners can build an extra floor and convert the bottom story into a non-living space.)
Insurance rates for homes in the city’s high-risk zones are calculated on the basis of Base Flood Elevation (BFE), the level to which water is expected to rise in the case of a “100-year flood” which has a one percent chance of being equal or exceeded each year. It is the national standard for the NFIP.
For a home that is 4 feet below BFE, for example, the estimated annual premium is $9,500. Homes in high-risk areas built after 1983, the year when federal flood maps were first adopted, are required to obtain elevation certificates for their insurance policies. An elevation certificate helps determine insurance rates by determining the BFE of a home. Homes built before 1983 do not require elevation certificates.
FEMA Maps Don’t Take Climate Change Into Account
The key aspect of planning for future disasters is understanding -and incorporating- the long-term impacts of climate change. A recent report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects that sea levels could rise as much as two feet by 2050. Many parts of the city, with its 520-mile coastline, could be partially if not completely submerged, which is of particular concern in the peninsular Rockaways.
FEMA’s new flood maps don’t account for this, but the City’s building codes were revised after Superstorm Sandy to set a higher home elevation (at least 2 feet higher than BFE in most cases) for flood damage repair and new construction.
This apparent policy gap doesn’t go unrecognized. “Federal agencies could use [the climate panel’s projections] in any future projects,” said Andrew Martin, mitigation spokesperson for FEMA Region II. “At some point, in the future, there’s a chance that they could be [incorporated into FEMA flood maps] but I couldn’t say when with certainty.”
But he conceded that, “FEMA recognizes that sea level rise and climate change exists and we’re just trying to figure out how to address that.” According to Martin, FEMA is conducting pilot studies in San Francisco, Puerto Rico and Florida to examine “future conditioning” for climate change, but these are not expected to be completed until late 2016.
Maintaining Affordability While Planning for Climate Change
Donovan Richards, in his role as chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, agrees that the problem is far bigger than insurance rates. Climate change needs to be addressed at a larger level to tackle long-term issues such as sea level rise, he says.
Mayor de Blasio started the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) in March last year for that very purpose: creating sustainable, resilient infrastructure while maintaining and protecting communities. And coastal affordability is a key priority of the Mayor’s affordable housing plan, Housing New York.
But neither the City nor federal agencies can completely protect people from insurance rate hikes. They can simply mitigate the effects. “We work closely with the ORR on outreach, meeting with elected representatives like Council members, those from Congress, Committee leaders to explain the changes in the new flood maps,” said FEMA’s Martin.
The de Blasio administration is also advocating for reduced insurance premiums for residents unable to elevate their homes or even buyouts for those without any options. Unfortunately, buyouts, made with federal disaster relief funds, require State approval.
A possible solution would be partial credit for partial mitigation, whereby homeowners could receive more accurately priced insurance rates by partially reducing the scope of possible flood damage. For instance, flood-proofing basements, elevating or reinforcing mechanical equipment, storing valuables in the attic, and securing propane tanks and other possible debris.
Living With Uncertainty
Uncertainty about future premiums, policies and procedures is a large part of the struggle for homeowners.
Richie Binder, 55, a retired ferry pilot, lives in Belle Harbor, Rockaway with his wife and two children. His wife runs a small business in the area. But they don’t have flood insurance on either property. “It’s a joke to have it,” says Binder. “The way they pay you is such a slow process.”
Binder’s home is on a higher part of the peninsula so eight months before Sandy hit, FEMA officials told him he wasn’t in the flood zone, he said. But his basement flooded and he was eventually granted federal funds. “They nickel-and-dime everything,” he said, frustrated with the red tape involved and the prospect of having to pay an insurance premium that he won’t be able to afford. “It doesn’t work out for the poor slob that owns a house,” he said.
The situation in the Rockaways is analogous across the city’s coastal communities.
In Coney Island, Brooklyn, 48-year-old Lucia Acevedo dreads the day she receives her insurance papers. “I’m afraid just opening the envelope,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief that her premium only rose $20 this year. But her anxiety about next year is not abated. “If they do raise rates, I’ll have to sell my house and I’ll lose value on it,” she said.
Acevedo lives with her two daughters and grandson in the fifth house on an attached 13-house strip, leaving her with limited options. She can’t afford to raise the house, which in itself is a complicated proposition considering the attached homes. Having heard nothing from the City about how much she might have to pay in the future, she added, “I don’t have the answer, and no one’s given me the answers.”
Who has the answers?
The focus now for the City, even as they work on possible mitigation solutions, needs to be outreach and education. Earlier this month, Council Member Richards and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods (CNYCN) hosted Rockaway and Rosedale residents to inform them about the changes in insurance rates.
“We’re focused on making sure people know and do enough to help them deal with this enormous challenge,” said Matthew Hassett, director of policy and communications for CNYCN. “The biggest thing is they should know whether they’re in a flood zone or not,” he said.
CNYCN released a report last September focused on the issue of housing affordability in flood zones and the long-term effects of climate change. They also launched FloodHelpNY, an online portal to educate the public on the insurance rates hike.
To its credit, the Mayor’s office has also taken steps in this direction. In May 2014, the City announced two affordability studies for both 1-4 family homes and multifamily homes. They pushed for federal flood insurance reform, which was ultimately successful. “We will also soon be launching a consumer education campaign on flood risks, maps, and insurance,” said Amy Spitalnick from the Office of Management and Budget in an emailed statement.
“I think the City is looking at the effects not only in the next five years but the next 50 years,” said CNYCN’s Hassett. “The City is doing its best in a tough situation.”
Samar Khurshid is a freelance journalist living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and mainly covers politics for the Gotham Gazette. Khurshid grew up in New Delhi, India. He worked for the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, for two years before moving to New York. This is Khurshid’s first story for New York Environment Report.
Photo credit: Samar Khurshid