UNFAIR HOUSING: Coastal Development and Environmental Justice

by Sarah Walsh, Fordham Environmental Law Review, Environmental Justice Columnist

Many people know that some of the biggest threats of climate change are rising sea levels and increased flooding. However, people don’t necessarily realize that these are often significant environmental justice issues as well. According to one study, research suggests that disaster outcomes and disaster responses are socially constructed – that is, they are the outcomes of decisions made by the state about where to develop, who is protected, and how the communities recover following an environmental hazard. In many cases, cities prioritize the protection of some people over others. Often, the policies chosen to address rising sea levels and increased flooding, such as building storm water pumps, seawalls, raising roads, etc., only benefit white communities while abandoning low-income, minority communities.

For example, Hurricane Sandy’s impacts in NYC were “unevenly experienced along lines of race and class. This is because many of the minority and low-income communities that were severely affected are located in a Special Flood Hazard Area.  Per FEMA, there are areas having special flood, mudflow, or flood-related erosion hazards that create a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage. This is the product of public development policies that targeted New York City’s coastline, where land was cheaper, and many of the city’s public housing projects were erected.

While protecting waterfront neighborhoods has become a priority for Mayor de Blasio in recent years, minority and low-income communities, particularly Hunts Point in the South Bronx, remained overlooked.  For example, when de Blasio announced an ambitious proposal in 2019 to expand lower Manhattan into the East River in order to protect the Seaport Area, the Financial District, and all the people who work there, he didn’t acknowledge that it was perpetuating a system that disproportionately benefited the city and private sector developers investment interests while squeezing lower income New Yorkers to fend for themselves in unprotected waterfront communities. The land that he is choosing to expand and protect consists of “sparkling residential towers and luxury mixed-use community Battery Park City, where a one-bedroom condo is about $1M.” On the other hand, several miles north in Hunts Point, the heavily industrialized waterfront is home to “ageing apartment buildings”, “open garages that reveal heaps of auto body parts”, and cyclists swerv[ing] between box trucks that dominate the street.”  They face the same threat yet have not been protected by the city.

This problem is not unique to New York City. Around the country, marginalized coastal communities are poor and disproportionately vulnerable to risks associated with global sea-level rise. For example, affordable housing in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California are also at risk. Affordable housing is already scarce; as climate change causes sea levels to rise and the risk of floods, there may be even less. We can’t allow our local governments to only protect the wealthy communities.