When Bad Weather and Bad Landlords Collide

“NYC is in a housing crisis,” said Deborah Morris, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who previously worked on climate resiliency with the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency. “And the quality of the housing is really, really poor. The pressure pushes vulnerable people into vulnerable places. Our buildings are not built to deal with the weather we’re experiencing now.” A small problem in good weather—a leaky seal, a clogged drain—can turn catastrophic in a flood. Morris noted that deferred maintenance or second-rate repairs following a storm might be due to a small landlord’s lack of know-how. In other instances, it can be the result of general negligence or even a tactic used to push tenants out of rent-stabilized apartments.

Forcing landlords to make repairs can be a double-edged sword, because it may result in tenants losing their housing in a market where reasonable, livable options are scarce. This is especially true in the case of the city’s tens of thousands of illegal basement apartments, where at least 11 people drowned during Ida. “I don’t think anyone should live in a basement [apartment],” given the condition they are often in, said Morris, but she understands why housing advocates continue to campaign for their legalization. (Last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio slashed the budget for a program helping people convert basements to legitimate rental units.) Affordable housing of any kind is a precious resource. After disasters, tenants who experience major damage are displaced from their homes, and even if they are able to move back in, rents may go up after repairs, as the immigrant rights group Make the Road New York found after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Without long-term investment in social housing, there are few solutions to the precarious position of renters facing down climate change. New York City does have an emergency repairs program, which allows the city to make necessary fixes and then charge landlords after the fact; such programs could be expanded. Morris also stressed that the city should put more resources toward building inspections, rather than relying on tenants to report and follow through on problems. 

On a national scale, Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, pointed to the many problems with accessing federal disaster recovery assistance, which is biased toward higher-income homeowners. There is some effort to streamline this process for renters, and another effort at the federal level via a bill introduced by Florida Representative Val Demings, which would institute eviction moratoriums whenever the federal government declares a disaster. While tenant rights mostly exist at the state and local level, Saadian said, “We are seeing more and more members of Congress who are recognizing that there is this enormous power imbalance that exists between renters and landlords that puts renters at risk.” Beyond disaster recovery, she said, Congress could help by passing laws giving tenants the right to counsel, access to legal aid, and just-cause eviction protections.  

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