A Tale of Two Recoveries: The Rockaways After Superstorm Sandy

Construction fencing stands at Rockaway Beach following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy
For residents of the Rockaways, the recovery from Superstorm Sandy was vastly different for homeowners than it was for tenants living in New York City’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, according to Professor Leigh Graham (GC, Psychology / John Jay, Public Management). During her research project, published in Urban Affairs Review, Graham examined how people in these disparate types of housing recovered in the Rockaways, one of the hardest hit and most isolated areas in the city.

She found that those living in public housing felt disempowered to advocate for themselves, left out of the recovery process, unable to align their concerns with those of their neighbors, and unwelcome at local planning meetings. The buildings suffered from damaged boilers, hot water issues, and mold and mildew, while residents experienced damage to playgrounds and other community gathering spaces, lost access to polling places, and became more physically isolated.  

An expert on racial and economic inequality in urban environments, Graham had previously been involved with recovery efforts in New York City after 9/11, and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Living in Queens, and a frequent beach-goer, she immediately became interested in the recovery efforts after Sandy hit.

She attended local community board meetings and other recovery planning meetings and interviewed about 50 local residents and stakeholders. “The biggest difference we found was that the homeowners felt like they had a voice, they were making an impact, they were being heard, and the tenants did not feel like they were being heard,” she says. She identified four main factors that contributed to their unequal experiences: 

• Their stigmatized identities as low-income people of color created an “inferior status” that rationalized their unequal treatment. There was “an invisible divide” between the public housing tenants and the homeowners, she says.

• Tenants felt alienated and felt it was pointless to speak out as nothing would change. Resident leaders had difficulty recruiting other tenants to participate in protests, attend important meetings, and make their needs heard.  

• U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has its own resident councils, which led tenants to focus their efforts on HUD rather than on community-wide efforts. 

• NYCHA’s “para-governmental” status, which allows it to operate with very little managerial and budgetary oversight at the state and local level.
Graham hopes that her research will lead to more informed policies and practice for incorporating marginalized populations into planning efforts. “I really would like to see the public housing residents have more of a political voice and impact both neighborhood and city politics.”

Submitted on: SEP 11, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology