President Joe Biden arrived in New York City on Tuesday to survey the damage left behind by Ida. The hurricane had fizzled out by the time it reached New York, but it still killed 16 people in the city and another 30 across the region. Most of those who died lived in Queens, my borough. They died in their basement apartments—technically illegal housing—where the city’s first flash flood emergency gave them no time to escape the rapidly rising waters. Among the deceased? A husband, wife, and their 19-month-old toddler.
Biden was in town to talk to those who survived—and to make a case for strong climate policy. Climate justice advocates were there to greet him with demands of their own: a ban on fossil fuels, a climate emergency declaration, and more. Folks are tired of empty words. The people need action. Enough families have died already.
Welcome to The Frontline, where there’s no climate justice without housing justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. New York City is the most expensive city in the U.S. to live in, and that results in housing disparities. We can’t all afford million dollar penthouse homes. Unfortunately, that means many families (especially immigrant families) can only afford to rent out basements without windows or fire escapes. The arrival of the climate crisis is finally challenging the reality of the city’s gross housing market.
Sujoy Dhar immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh when he was just 3 years old. He came over with his parents. An early memory is of his first home in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He and his parents lived in a basement apartment that would flood regularly. Over the last 24 years, Dhar’s parents have worked hard to ensure those memories stay in the past. One of their greatest accomplishments was purchasing their home in Glendale, a Queens neighborhood.
On Sept. 1, 2021, the past came roaring back to haunt them. Dhar was living in his parents’ basement where he had his own mini living room, his computer setup, and all his clothes. His parents kept a freezer downstairs where they’d store food for family gatherings. The night Ida arrived, however, the family was caught off guard. Around 10:30 pm, water began to come out from the bathroom sink, the toilet, and the shower. Then, the water began to pour inside from the floods.
“The water levels rose to the point where my parents both looked at me and didn’t know what to do,” Dhar said. “There’s really nothing you can do. It’s just a feeling of helplessness. There’s no button you could press to turn off a water valve.”
The power of the water outside was enough to break the basement door. Dhar lost all his belongings and furniture. He even lost his car, which floated away in the floods. His diploma was destroyed, too. The house’s water heater suffered damage, so the family is living with cold water until they can get it fixed. For now, Dhar has been sleeping on his parents’ couch and driving a rental to and from his job at a nearby hospital. The insurance company is only offering his family $10,000, which isn’t even enough to cover the loss of personal belongings in the flood—much less the repairs the basement will need to be habitable again.
“Really important things that meant a lot to me were completely destroyed,” Dhar said.
The basement Dhar was living in was not quite like those where families were killed in the storm. His was above ground and with windows. It was legal for human occupation. Others, however, are left in basements that get little to no light or ventilation. Their electrical wiring may be sub-par and so is the construction, as The New York Times reported. They’re unsafe living conditions, and the city fines homeowners who convert their basements into these units. As for the tenants, they’re often left houseless.
“We know that this city cannot house its most vulnerable people.”
Ida exposed just how ugly New York City’s housing inequalities can be—and just how urgently the city needs to adopt climate policy that centers affordable and resilient housing. People’s lives are on the line. City mayor Bill de Blasio announced an evacuation plan Friday focused on basement residents to ensure future rain events don’t catch them off guard, but some advocates argue this ignores the root causes of the issue: income inequality and housing costs that relegate some people underground.
No one knows for sure how many people live in the unsafe illegal basement apartments mostly scattered throughout Queens, but Annetta Seecharran, executive director of housing rights group Chhaya, estimates that the number is in the hundreds of thousands. In a city where the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,000, low-income residents and undocumented immigrants are forced to rent what they can afford—even if the situation puts them in danger. These homeowners offer them their best option and are usually dependent on the rent income themselves, Seecharran explained.
“It’s kind of like our worst nightmare,” Seecharran said of the storm and its impacts. “We’ve been calling on the city to recognize that basement apartments exist rather than fining people. How do we support homeowners to bring them up to code to ensure that they’re safe? Because they are an important part of the New York City housing market.”
Basement apartments were a concern before global heating began affecting New York City, but Ida underscored the urgency of the city’s housing crisis. Over the last 20 years, the average monthly rent has increased by almost 40 percent. Wages, on the other hand, have gone up by less than 15 percent. Where can people live in a climate ravaged future if one of their only affordable options is now gone? After all, many families don’t want to live in a basement. I know my mom, who currently lives in a basement in the city’s surrounding suburbs, would much prefer a beautifully lit apartment above ground.
“I don’t know of any basement tenant who wouldn’t love to live on an upper floor,” Seecharran said. “We know that this city cannot house its most vulnerable people. Let’s recognize that fact and figure out how we can make this safe from the tenants’ perspective and the fact that we’re dealing with climate change, which is going to cause these storms to come with greater frequency. We don’t have a minute to waste. Right now, people are returning to even more unsafe units with structural damage or biohazards and mold.”
That’s where Taylor Morton’s mind goes. They’re the director of environmental health and education of WE ACT, one of the city’s leading environmental justice organizations. They know that long-term exposure to hazards like mold is bad news, especially for communities of color already facing respiratory issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve seen mold grow so out of hand in some apartments that it’s reached the concrete of homes. Morton knows Ida is only the beginning.
“The impacts of climate change can be seen really clearly when it comes to our frontline communities, our Black and Brown communities,” Morton said. “When we think critically about gentrification and climate change, I’m thinking about how people will be moving across the city when parts of the city become uninhabitable due to climate change or when the sea level rise really starts to push the boundaries of where people live even more. What will that mean for people who have to move around and the cost of living?”
A Green New Deal could help address some of this. New York City passed a Green New Deal of sorts in 2019, but it focused largely on emissions reduction. The $14 billion Climate Mobilization Act didn’t address ways the city could prepare for climate change while also fixing some of its other deep-seeded societal problems. Meanwhile, the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, a federal policy introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders in April, looks to retrofit public housing units so that they’re zero-carbon and free of hazards like lead and mold.
“The Green New Deal for Public Housing really speaks to the kind of climate policy that we need because it addresses climate change in an intersectional manner,” said Marcela Mulholland, the political director at Data for Progress, a think tank that researches progressive policy.
As national and city leaders prepare for what climate change will bring, they need to consider the other crises communities face. That’s why Patrick Houston protested President Biden’s visit Tuesday. As the climate and inequality campaigns associate with New York Communities for Change, Houston has seen time and time again the devastation New Yorkers face when deadly storms pass through.
“Every Hurricane Sandy and every Hurricane Ida is a wake-up call that we need to invest in our futures now to protect our communities now,” Houston said.
Houston wants to see climate policy across the city, state, and nation that attack from multiple fronts. That means a comprehensive Green New Deal for New York. We can no longer ignore the floods and rising waters. The city is drowning in disparity.