1,500 Buildings Caught Between the Next Flood and a Hard Place

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The basement of a six-story elevator building in the East Village took on nearly six feet of water when Sandy hit a year and a half ago, damaging the boiler and electrical equipment. A team of architects and engineers estimated that to move those systems to higher floors and take related measures, it would cost $2.6 million.

The only problem is, the city values the 114-year-old building at a mere $1.6 million, and given the low rent roll it is unlikely the nonprofit organization could get a loan for what it needs. 

The building, on East 8th Street, is one example examined by NYU’s Furman Center in a report being released Wednesday that illustrates a looming crisis that that could pit resiliency versus affordability in the coming years.

“This poses a real challenge for building owners and it poses a real threat to affordable housing in the city,” said Jessica Yager, Furman’s director of policy. “We might see building owners being forced to raise rents in order to fund this work.”

The study found there will be more than 1,500 affordable apartment buildings in the 100-year FEMA-designated flood zone once a new map goes into effect in the next year or two.

The retrofits that owners need are onerous and at times financially impossible. And yet if they do not make changes, many of those buildings will face excruciatingly high insurance premiums as a result of federal flood insurance reforms.

Among other steps, the Furman Center is recommending that FEMA to adjust what it considers to be legitimate flood-proofing measures.

Currently, an all-residential apartment building would not qualify for reduced insurance premiums if its boilers and electrical equipment are below the 100-year flood level – even if the basement is completely sealed. But if that same size building were considered “mixed-use” – i.e. if it had a café or grocery in the ground floor – than it could use “dry flood-proofing” methods like this and keep the mechanical equipment in the basement. The Furman Center report suggests FEMA allow all-residential buildings to dry-floodproof their lowest floors.