Furman Center investigates how New York's multifamily housing can survive the next hurricane

The Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy has released its latest report, “The Price of Resilience: Can Multifamily Housing Afford to Adapt?” Culminating months of investigation into the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy on multifamily buildings in New York City, the report details retrofit solutions and policy recommendations that city officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can implement to foster greater resilience in these buildings.

Click here to view the report.
Although Sandy was no longer a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New York in October 2012, the storm surge reached almost 76,000 buildings with over 300,000 housing units, as the Furman Center reported in “Sandy’s Effects on Housing in New York City,” released in March of last year. That would have been nine percent of the total housing units in the city. According to that 2013 report, while many of FEMA’s recovery programs are tailored to single-family homes, 70% of the buildings in Sandy’s surge area were multifamily properties. These included public housing; privately-owned, subsidized rental housing; and privately-owned, unsubsidized rent-stabilized housing. Some of the numbers were staggering: 402 buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority were damaged, totaling over 35,000 units—“more public housing units than the entire stock of any other public housing authority in the country (excluding Puerto Rico).”

Workshop participants brainstorm multifamily retrofit solutions.

In the absence of appropriate models for rebuilding and retrofitting these multifamily buildings, the Furman Center, in partnership with the American Institute of Architects NY Chapter (AIANY) and Enterprise Community Partners, held the Retrofit Solutions Workshop in January 2014. Workshop participants included architects, engineers, building operators, code experts, cost estimators, FEMA representatives, and others. Together, they worked on retrofit solutions for three case study buildings, which were representative of the diversity of multifamily buildings in the New York City area:

  • 445 Baltic Street, Brooklyn: a small walk-up with 5 residential units. During the storm, flooding in the cellar reached the ceiling.
  • 34 E. 8th Street, Manhattan: a mid-size elevator building with 30 residential units. Sandy flooded the cellar with about five-and-a-half feet of water.
  • 3601 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn: a large tower block with 197 residential units. Overseen by the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA), the property only housed residents over the age of 55. Hurricane Sandy partially destroyed the nearby sea wall and flooded the first floor, which included the senior center, with four feet of water.

Workshop participants evaluated solutions, such as dry floodproofing (that is, keeping floodwaters out) and relocating critical building systems, and discussed the challenges facing rent-stabilized and subsidized housing.

“Buildings with regulated rents will have a particularly hard time implementing resilience measures to protect themselves from future storms,” said Jessica Yager, policy director at the center and co-author of the new report, which recaps the work produced in January. “But if they do not take protective measures, they may face dramatically rising insurance premiums and potentially unsafe conditions, situations that could lead to unsustainable operating costs or, in some cases, pressure to convert to market-rate.”

Despite the obstacles that might undermine preventative measures, taking action is crucial. Donald Manning, executive director of JASA, noted that before the workshop, “[w]e would just rebuild and get it done and get everybody home. But now we’re realizing there’s really a resiliency issue. Prevention for the next storm.”

Among its policy recommendations, the latest report calls for FEMA to create retrofitting guidelines for multifamily housing and reconsider its ban against dry floodproofing in such at-risk buildings.

The workshop’s recommendations are currently on display at the Center for Architecture in an exhibit entitled, “Affording Resilience: Housing Retrofits for Climate Threats,” which runs from June 24 through August 7.

Watch the video about the Retrofit Solutions Workshop (4 min.):

Posted on July 17, 2014