Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable-housing plan for New York City announced Tuesday calls for thousands of new residences to be built in low-lying neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
These areas include Long Island City, Staten Island, the Rockaways and East Brooklyn, according to the plan de Blasio outlined yesterday in an unusual single-focus State of the City address. While the program will create jobs and help bridge the gap between rich and poor, it will also have to be carried out carefully to avoid putting more people in danger as water levels rise because of global warming, some New York environmental leaders said.
New York, the largest American city with 8.4 million residents, faces sea-level rise of 11 to 24 inches by the 2050s, according to a panel of scientists convened by the mayor's office. This would put almost a quarter of the city in a floodplain, the group found. Climate change will bring the most severe hurricanes to the region more often and increase temperatures 3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2020 and 6.5 degrees by 2050. The number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit could jump to 57 by mid-century from 18 now, according to the panel.
"As we think about bold development decisions now, we have to factor in a rapidly changing climate," said Matt Ryan, executive director of the labor coalition Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), which focuses on post-Sandy rebuilding. "Sandy was evidence enough for that."
Flooding and wind from the 2012 storm caused more than $50 billion in damage in New York City, destroying infrastructure and homes and shutting down one of the world's largest economic centers. Low-income communities are often the last to be evacuated, the last to be repopulated and the slowest to recover from such disasters.
In his 90-minute, 5,000-word speech, de Blasio devoted 160 words to climate change. President Barack Obama, by contrast, discussed the issue at great length in his State of the Union speech last month. By focusing almost entirely on the affordable-housing issue, the major departed from the traditional format of addressing an array of policy issues.
Most environmental leaders said they were encouraged the mayor mentioned climate change at all, and that he repeated his administration's goal of cutting the city's emissions 80 percent by 2050, an agenda popularly known as 80x50. The environmental activists said they are working with the administration on an updated sustainability plan, known as PlaNYC, due out on Earth Day, April 22.
Under city law, any new affordable housing will have to be built to withstand the effects of climate change, mayoral spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick told InsideClimate News.
Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's New York office, said he approved of the mayor's housing plan. "While there are places where we simply should not build and live, there are many, many more places where we can build smart to provide quality housing and protection from the risks of climate change."
Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University who studies climate change's impact on infrastructure, said the move is risky and short-sighted.
"Even if the new structures are elevated and resilient, people still have to go to and from their buildings," he said. "If they are flooded a couple of times a month, what is the point?"
"It would be much more meaningful to rezone low-density, high elevation areas in the city for affordable housing so you don't have to worry again in 50, 75, 100 years," he said.
De Blasio's plan to put new housing on the waterfront is consistent with positions taken by other leaders, said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
"That's an ongoing area of, frankly, schizophrenic policy," Bautista said. "Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it clear we weren't going to retreat from the water. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a policy to build on the water. It is a blind spot that chief executives share."
Creating jobs was a secondary focus of de Blasio's speech, arguing that expanding affordable housing will generate thousands of construction jobs. But de Blasio could also create 40,000 jobs by expanding his global warming strategy with projects such as retrofitting buildings and climate adaptation, according to a Jan. 30 report by ALIGN, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and several other New York-based groups.
"I commend the mayor for his focus on equality and changing the tale of two cities," said ALIGN's Ryan, "but I think there needs to be more recognition that a bold climate agenda can play a role in creating a more equal city as well."
In December, the mayor combined two environment-related departments into a new Office of Sustainability and hired Nilda Mesa, the former head of sustainability for Columbia University, to lead it.
Environmental leaders said they are hopeful about de Blasio's commitment to climate change as they work with the new Office of Sustainability on the PlaNYC update for April. Bloomberg started the PlaNYC program in 2007, and the process has helped transform New York into a global leader on climate change.