Six Years Since Sandy
What have we learned? Who will be safe in the next storm? Doctoral student Zachory Paganini discusses his research on Canarsie, Brooklyn.
This month marks the sixth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which, by the city’s estimates, “caused more than $19 billion in damage and lost economic activity, disrupted critical infrastructure systems, and destroyed or seriously impacted thousands of homes and businesses.” One of the areas hard hit was the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, a working-class neighborhood along Jamaica Bay, many of whose homeowners were already struggling from the recession when their coastal community was flooded.
How coastal communities endure and rebuild is a national problem, highlighted again recently by severe flooding in the Carolinas caused by Hurricane Florence. While federal flood insurance is available, and, in fact, mandatory for some homeowners within high-risk flood areas, the cost of the insurance is high. As climate change creates greater risk of flooding, residents of coastal regions face increasing challenges.
Doctoral student Zachary Paganini’s (Earth and Environmental Sciences) research on climate change, flood insurance, and Canarsie has appeared in several articles in The New York Times. We asked him for his perspectives.
GC: How did you choose Canarsie? How did you become interested in exploring flood insurance?
Paganini: Broadly, my research asks: Who will be able to continue to live by the coasts in an era of climate change? Specifically, I focus on the potential for changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to disproportionately displace homeowners of color in working class neighborhoods of New York City such as Canarsie. The NFIP produces maps of flood risk along coastal areas, and homeowners in the high-risk zone are required to pay insurance premiums based on their flood risk. Thousands of homeowners who have never had to pay for flood insurance before, suddenly face $3,000 to $6,000 a year in mandatory annual premiums that threaten them with displacement.
These impending displacements have three root causes.
Congressional reforms to the NFIP are phasing out ‘grandfather clauses’ and subsidies for buildings constructed before the program’s inception, which will hit residents of cities like New York City, with its older housing stock, particularly hard.
NFIP flood risk maps for the city are being updated for the first time in 30 years. The city is currently contesting the NFIP's new maps, but the preliminary maps would have doubled the population in the high-risk flood zone city-wide and expanded Canarsie's high risk zone from containing 26 to more than 5,000 of the neighborhood’s 12,000 residential buildings.
Canarsie, which has an 85 percent black population, was targeted with more subprime mortgages in the 2000s than any other neighborhood in New York City. The context of subprime lending in Canarsie, which has robbed Canarsie homeowners of housing wealth they might otherwise have used to meet flood insurance requirements, shows that the NFIP, in attempting to regulate flooding by imposing insurance premium costs on homeowners, threatens to exacerbate existing patterns of racial inequality in the housing market.
GC: What does your research on flood insurance reveal about homeowners? About attitudes on climate change?
Paganini: Just because you're knowledgeable about the risks of climate change doesn't mean you're necessarily going to just pick up and move. Not only do Canarsie homeowners have a tremendous attachment to their homes and neighborhood and families, friendships, and memories they've built there, but they're also quite literally invested in their properties. For some homeowners, their mortgages are still underwater from the collapse in property values brought about by the recession and Hurricane Sandy, so leaving isn't an option. They have to wait it out and hope their property values recover.
Complicating Canarsie homeowners' situation further is the fact that, if their homes are in the high risk zone of the new flood maps, their property values could fall by tens of thousands of dollars due to the mandatory flood insurance premiums. So a lot of Canarsie homeowners are sort of in purgatory right now: they're waiting to see whether they'll be mapped into the new high-risk zone, and they're hoping some sort of program will come about to make flood insurance more affordable — whether that's in the form of a vouchers, subsidies, a complete restructuring of the NFIP, or some sort of infrastructure investment.
GC: What about gentrification?
Paganini: Certainly my research is showing that the impact of flood insurance threatens to displace coastal homeowners and drag down their property values. We also see in the build-up of areas like Williamsburg and Long Island City evidence that large developers may be the ones best prepared — by which I mean, the ones with the capital on hand — to deal with the increased costs of constructing structures that minimize the costs of flood insurance.
There’s also compelling evidence that high-risk flood designation hurts the property values of all but the highest-end properties, which would provide another incentive for luxury redevelopment along the waterfronts.
GC: Does it surprise you that so much new development is in/near high risk flood zones? Does new development hurt long-time residents?
Paganini: I think this question of new development in high risk flood zones is very important, because nearly every major redevelopment project in this city over the past decade is located in or near the high-risk flood zone. It's important to understand that the massive build-up occurring in New York City's waterfront is not coincidental to, or the result of ignoring, resiliency planning for climate change. Rather, attracting luxury developments to the waterfront is an intentional strategy on the part of the city for enhancing the resiliency of these waterfront areas. Because the city is so reliant on property taxes, a retreat from the coasts would be disastrous for the city's finances and could cripple the city's ability to fund future climate adaptation initiatives; it's for this reason that the city has repeatedly and publicly pushed back against advocates of coastal retreat.
GC: Is NYC prepared for the next Sandy or major hurricane?
Paganini: I think the question becomes not whether NYC is prepared for the next Sandy, but who and where in NYC will be prepared for the next Sandy. Vulnerability is bound to be unevenly distributed in a place with such drastic inequality as New York City, and I think we're seeing that here in the early years of climate adaptation planning.
GC: Why did you choose to pursue your Ph.D. at The Graduate Center?
Paganini: I wanted to be in New York City to be near my case study and have more opportunities to contribute to ongoing debates and conversations about climate change planning for the City. But more to the point, I have for many years hoped to be a part of the CUNY system because of the long and rich history of radical left-wing thinking and organizing that has centered around the University. I first discovered my discipline, geography, by reading Distinguished Professor David Harvey (History, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Anthropology). Reading his work changed the course of my life and inspired me to research Marxist urban political economy, and it feels almost poetic that I'm on track to receive my Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, where Dr. Harvey researches and teaches.
My department is home to some of the most serious and rigorous thinkers in my discipline such as Professor Cindi Katz (Earth and Environmental Sciences, Psychology, Women’s and Gender Studies) and Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Earth and Environmental Sciences), whose analyses are so incisive that I always read their work for inspiration before I do any writing.
I knew that for my Ph.D. I wanted to produce a serious account of environmental governance and the material impacts it will have on coastal residents, and The Graduate Center was the perfect place to conduct that work. In addition, I’m incredibly proud to be a part of an institution that for decades has served as a pathway to upward mobility for working-class New Yorkers.