New potential funding mechanisms—including a measure that New Yorkers will see on the ballot this November—may provide an opportunity for homeowners in areas of high flood risk to sell their at-risk properties to the state or city. The properties are then rebuilt to be more resilient, or removed so the land can be used for coastal protection measures.

Adi Talwar

Reinforced dunes at edge of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, one of the few NYC neighborhoods where a substantial number of buyouts took place after Hurricane Sandy.

City Limits’ is examining the impact and legacy of Hurricane Sandy as we approach the 10th anniversary of the storm this week. Help us report on this issue by sharing your Sandy story with us here.

As New York marks its 10-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy this fall, increased frequency and intensity of storms has led to conversations about the future of New York City’s coastline communities—and whether some can remain habitable in the future.

New potential funding mechanisms—including a measure that New Yorkers will see on the ballot this November—may provide an opportunity for homeowners in areas of high flood risk to sell their at-risk properties to the state or city. The properties are then rebuilt to be more resilient, or removed so the land can be used for coastal protection measures.

Following Sandy, a swath of about 200 buyouts along the shore of Staten Island has resulted in a project by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a seawall and natural wetlands protecting several miles of the south coast of the island from a future storm surge. But challenges with the process remain: some people who opted for the buyout have moved into another flood zone, due to lack of transparency about risk and affordability issues. Also, most federal funding for such programs has historically been available only after a storm, leaving many low-income individuals as sitting ducks until the next disaster.

“We don’t have to wait for a storm to come and wash away someone’s house or flood someone’s house or damage their property to take action,” said Jessica Ottney Mahar, the Nature Conservancy’s New York policy and strategy director. She emphasizes, however, that any such program would require community buy-in and that homeowners would need to feel confident that the decision is in their hands.

“This is voluntary,” she added. “No one’s going to say you need to leave your home, but for those property owners that are saying I need to get out of here, this is an avenue to relocation.” 

If voters this November approve the Environmental Bond Act, New York will allocate more than $1 billion for buyouts and other measures to protect the coastline. Other potential pre-storm funding may come from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and competitive federal grant programs, including the Building Resistant Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grants, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began offering in 2020. 

As officials are exploring these new avenues of funding, the Mayor’s Office for Climate and Environmental Justice is considering a multitude of housing mobility services, including counseling, down payment assistance, rental assistance, real estate brokerage services, estate planning and moving assistance, said a spokesperson.  

“Our primary goals are to prevent long-term displacement caused by flooding and provide New Yorkers living in flood-prone areas with the resources for a future move,” the spokesperson  added. “We will prioritize [the] needs of low- and moderate-income households to secure stable and safe future housing.” 

A great need

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, 2012, its 80-mile-per-hour winds and storm surges—worsened by an already high tide—destroyed or damaged about 300 homes and nearly 70,000 residential units. Many of the city’s resiliency and restoration projects remain unfinished, some with deadlines extending two decades after the storm, according to a report this month by City Comptroller Brad Lander’s office

Meanwhile, development and property values in the 100-year floodplain have increased since then and are projected to continue growing over the next 30 years. Lander’s report found that 31 percent of the city’s current space used for one- or two-family buildings and multi-family buildings are in the 100-year floodplain. By the 2050s, that will spike to more than half.

Edward Reed/Mayor’s Office

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg touring Hurricane Sandy damage after the storm.

Property values in the floodplain have already increased since 2012 by 44 percent citywide, Lander’s report showed. By 2050, those totals are expected to grow even more as more of the city is put at risk of flooding. The most drastic change will be in Brooklyn—without even accounting for changes in market values, the borough will have more than $69 billion in property at risk of flooding, up 68 percent from 2022. 

In reviewing his office’s findings, Lander said he was struck by the city’s lack of a risk-based analysis for land use, based on the value of real estate and infrastructure—taking into consideration the changing floodplains and the risks of repeated flash flooding, as was seen during Hurricane Ida and several storms since. 

“That helps reveal what places can be strategically protected and what places can’t, and then your buyout program or voluntary relocation program fits into that framework,” Lander said. “You want to do this inside a more thoughtful framework, not in one-offs, and that seems to be where we’re stuck now.”  

But in a city as diverse and dense as New York, a mass exodus from a particular flood-prone area may be too lofty a goal, requiring the city to think instead about small-scale infrastructure to protect parts of neighborhoods, explained Tyler Taba, senior climate policy manager for the Waterfront Alliance.

“To think that there will be this really big community-led effort that will get like a whole neighborhood or a whole strip of homes to retreat or relocate is kind of unlikely, I think,” he said.  

Some may be at risk without realizing it. Flood histories of city properties are notoriously elusive, in part due to a loophole in state law that allows sellers to pay a $500 credit to the buyer instead of releasing information, including previous flooding events, to new homeowners. Last year, 7,645 New York homes with previous flood damage were purchased, totaling more than $23.5 million. 

For those who are aware of their risk, cost is often a barrier to relocation. Currently, more than a million people in New York City live in a flood zone. Half of those individuals are considered low income, or making less than $75,120 for a family of three, according to data compiled by Rebuild by Design, an organization born out of a design competition by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following Sandy. 

A lack of affordable housing combined with soaring rent prices that hit an all-time high this summer means individuals who are hoping to sell their homes and get out of harm’s way have limited options.

In August, The Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations published a lengthy series of articles reporting that on a national level, counties frequently hit by natural disasters are disportionately populated by low-income individuals, people of color and people who speak limited English. The reporters analyzed three decades of FEMA disaster spending and found that in those worst impacted areas, people of color received 40 percent less funding. 

“They’re not going to be able to move themselves,” said Amy Chester, Rebuild by Design’s managing director. “Those people need a place to go, and they need to make sure that place to go is not going to further displace residents in a different neighborhood.” 

Adi Talwar

A home in Graham Beach, Staten Island in 2015.

Potential funding sources

There are several disaster funding programs available for buyouts, but historically, the pot of funding is unlocked after a natural disaster, preventing the state or city from maintaining a consistent, ongoing program.  

Another issue with recovery funding is that processing takes time—sometimes several years—and the mass need following a disaster can lead to bottlenecking of applications, delaying them even further, said Taba of the Waterfront Alliance. 

“Not a lot of people have that time to wait and sit around with their property that’s kind of decrepit after a storm and so they often opt into flood insurance. And once you do that, then you’re no longer eligible for a buyout,” he said. “So people are making these sort of immediate fixes to their homes because they don’t have the time to sit and wait five years, or even three years, for the application to be accepted and to relocate.”

Two potential new funding sources may help solve that problem. In 2020, FEMA began offering the BRIC grants, a program that the agency says is continuing to grow—the first year there was a national pot of $500 million; in 2021, it was $1 billion, and next year, $2.3 billion will be available, according to an official with FEMA. This funding can be used for anything that will provide resilience to structures, he said. But the application process is competitive, meaning localities have to make a strong case for funding to get approval. 

“There’s nothing guaranteed to anybody, and it’s a quite elaborate process to apply for the money and it’s a nationwide competitive process,” said Louise Yeung, the city comptroller’s chief climate officer. 

But New York has already been successful in winning BRIC funding, and is well positioned to have applications approved because of its progressive housing laws, one of the factors FEMA considers, an official with the agency told City Limits. 

New York State submitted a $133,440 proposal to another FEMA grant initiative, Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA), to develop a roadmap for a managed retreat program, according to a records request. “This is a necessary first step to developing a Statewide Managed Retreat Program for voluntary local implementation. The final product of this activity will result in a community roadmap for managed retreat,” said the project description in the application.

The other funding opportunity comes from a measure voters will see on the ballot in November—the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022. If approved, it will authorize the state to sell bonds for up to $4.2 billion for environmental projects. Of that, more than $1 billion will be carved out for buyouts, wetland restoration and other measures for coastal protection. 

Jarrett Murphy

A question amid Sandy’s ruins in Staten Island. November, 2012.

Success stories

The last time the state used legislation to support the sale of bonds for environmental purposes was in 1996, explained Ottney Mahar, of the Nature Conservancy. That bond act, however, was not decided by the voters and was not used for buyouts. “The state has a long history of using capital funding to protect lands, protect land uses and make sure that our communities and our people are benefiting from those,” she said.

Across the Hudson, New Jersey runs a buyout program, Blue Acres, which many experts cite as the gold standard for relocation efforts. The program’s strong suit lies in its long-standing operations, explains Linda Shi, a Cornell researcher focused on urban climate adaptation.

“It’s really necessary if you’re going to do buyouts … to establish a permanent office because the buyout is going to be much more thought out and well-run than one that’s created just after a disaster,” said Shi.  

Many of the homes purchased through Blue Acres are demolished so the land can then be used for resiliency—something that experts say is, when appropriate, a key aspect of a successful buyout program. 

“There are tons of community benefits that come along with buyouts,” said Ottney Mahar. “But those benefits happen when that property is restored so that it functions as a buffer or a sponge for that water that floods the community.” New York’s proposed bond act has specific instructions for the funding to be used in that way, she added. 

The Blue Acres program, launched in 1995 following the passage of a bond act, is run by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. As of early October, the state has closed on more than 800 homes and demolished 739, according to a press officer at the NJDEP. 

Another success story is a community-led buyout effort in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, an area that was once wetlands and flooded regularly before Superstorm Sandy.

Led by Joe Tirone, a rental property owner, the community formed the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee, which encouraged homeowners to take advantage of a state-led buyout program launched in 2013 and funded by HUD Community Development Block Grants. Within a year, nearly 200 homeowners agreed to participate.  

Katie Spidalieri, a Georgetown University researcher, included this effort in one of 17 national case studies of buyouts highlighted in a report she and her colleagues published in 2020. She noted that residents had an option to choose between the state-funded program and another sponsored by the city—and that most chose the former because of the state’s promise to maintain the land as open space. 

“That was a fairly cohesive and close knit group they had,” said Shi. “Because they had experienced repeated floods, they had established some neighborhood committee to do a report and advocate for a seawall proposal to protect that neighborhood.”

A program in Queens, Resilient Edgemere, has incorporated buyouts and a community land trust into a plan to reduce density in the frequently flooded neighborhood, but it has been met with resistance. The City Council approved a rezoning there last summer which includes plans to raise the shoreline along Jamaica Bay and designate 16 acres as open space to be used for coastal protection.

The NYC’s Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations noted that through the Build It Back program, the city and state has used federal relief funding to purchase about 800 homes. 

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently in the design phase of a $600 million project to install coastal defense infrastructure between the south beach of Staten Island and the Raritan Bay. The design includes a 4.5-mile buried seawall off the coast ranging from Fort Wadsworth to Oakwood Beach, raised roads and in part of Oakwood Beach, tidal wetlands.   

Adi Talwar

A property in Oakwood Beach, one of the few areas where a post-Sandy policy of retreat has been executed in the New York City area.

An equitable approach

Buyout or relocation programs are not without their challenges, however, especially in New York City, where residents face extreme income disparities and a continued shortage in affordable housing. 

The Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice has said it would consider income level in administering any future buyout programs. But some point out that it is often environmental justice neighborhoods where programs promoting relocation are implemented, rather than higher income, majority white neighborhoods. 

“What we hear often is ‘Why is it that the Rockaways and Coney Island-Canarsie … are being thought of for relocation and buyouts, but you don’t really hear anybody going to Lower Manhattan and saying what does the buyout program look like?’” said Taba. “Instead you get these billion dollar projects around Lower Manhattan to protect those communities and that infrastructure,” he added, referring to the ongoing Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency and East Side Coastal Resiliency projects. 

Shi notes that having a permanent buyout office would also help New York mitigate community mistrust and approach the programs in a culturally competent manner, which is difficult to do in the chaos of a disaster’s aftermath. 

“In that moment, it will be especially hard to be thoughtful and attentive to the nuanced needs of people who are in various ways more on the extremes of marginality, compared to [someone who is] middle class, has all the paperwork, understands English,” she said.  

Even a consistent program with strategic planning by city and state officials is unable to resolve the issue of housing costs in the city, and where the majority-low-income residents from at-risk communities would be able to move to. 

“There’s a lot of questions that I think still need to be answered about housing and affordability of housing—and where do people go?” said Taba. “A lot of those communities have already been pushed out of their city and into those communities that are maybe more outside, like the Rockaways and Coney Island.” 

Lack of affordable housing can even lead people who take buyouts to move into another flood zone—something Tirone, of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee, said was the case for several people who participated in the post-Sandy buyouts there. “It was not a feeling like they didn’t think it was risky to live in a flood zone,” he said. “If they ended up in a flood zone, it was really because they had no other choice, maybe in terms of affordability.” 

Experts agree that for such programs to be successful, it will require an interagency, multidisciplinary approach, incorporating all aspects of housing from land-use to resilient infrastructure to affordable and accessible housing. 

“You cannot talk about where people are leaving without talking about where people go,” said Shi. “Even more so as people are migrating from other places that are also experiencing their own hazards and moving to New York. And so the entire system needs to account for that in order for there to be housing mobility rather than displacement.”