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New York’s Invisible Climate Migrants

Global warming is causing mass migrations around the world. In New York, it's forcing people from their homes in quieter ways.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When Harold Jones first bought his home in Canarsie in 1991, he was struck most by the tall trees lining the street. Today, he’s more struck by the “For Sale” signs standing in their place.

The trees went first, and quickly. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the waters of the Jamaica Bay inlet that borders Jones’s street surged over the shallow bank, pummeling everything on the block. The signs came later, over several years’ time. Most of Jones’s neighbors tried to stick it out, but, he said, “A lot of people didn’t have the resources to rebuild.” Some homes eventually went into foreclosure, and others were sold. Some residents moved south, while others returned to the Caribbean islands they’d emigrated from. Others left quietly, their whereabouts unknown to Jones.

Since then, Jones has been trying to help keep the old neighborhood alive. After Sandy, he founded one of the area’s few nonprofits, Canarsie Community Development, to help residents prepare for future disasters. But still, he said, fliers arrive weekly in his mailbox from property development companies promising to “buy homes for cash.” Some of his old neighbors are leaving, and they’re being replaced by those who can afford to take on the risk of living in a flood-prone area.

There’s no formal definition of a climate refugee, though the phrase usually refers to people who have been forced from their homes due to climate change—a Pacific Islander retreating from a disappearing shoreline, for instance, or a sub-Saharan African escaping a drought. But there are less extreme examples, like Jones’s neighbors, who stayed put after Sandy but continued to struggle with the financial burden of living in an area with ever-increasing flood risk. It wasn’t the water or winds that pushed them out, but the storm’s economic aftershocks.

In some parts of the country that are threatened by rising seas—like Louisiana or Alaska—government-sponsored relocations of vulnerable communities are already under way. But retreat looks different in cities like New York, which faces more sporadic climate impacts. For these people, “It’s not a planned retreat,” said David Abramson, director of New York University’s research program on population impact and resilience. “It’s an economic retreat.”

Far from Manhattan and poorly connected by public transportation, Canarsie and the surrounding neighborhoods that make up the Jamaica Bay watershed were some of the last New York City neighborhoods to develop. The area was transformed in the 1950s, amid the post–World War II population boom, as beach bungalows gave way to massive public housing projects.

Today, these areas are some of the final holdouts of affordability in New York: In the Rockaways, in Queens, and Brooklyn’s Canarsie, the median asking rent is $1,837 and $2,000, respectively, compared with an overall median of $2,199 in Queens and $2,500 in Brooklyn, according to StreetEasy. They are some of the only places where homeownership is attainable for middle-class families, particularly for black families: In 2017, in Canarsie and neighboring Flatlands, 62 percent of the population identified as black and the homeownership rate was 57 percent, the highest of any neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Even before Sandy, though, it wasn’t easy to keep a home in these neighborhoods. Targeted intensely by subprime lenders during the housing bubble, they have consistently had some of the highest foreclosure rates in the city. But after Sandy, it became even harder; the government programs designed to help people with recovery costs have been notoriously inadequate. Many people dropped out of Build It Back, New York City’s largest post-Sandy assistance program, because of delays, paperwork issues, and shoddy construction work. Many who applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still waiting today. And flood insurance rates have increased in some neighborhoods by as much as 18 percent per year, according to the nonprofit Center for New York City Neighborhoods (CNYCN).

As a result, many of those who stayed after Sandy were forced from their homes anyway. In the years following the storm, homeowners in areas affected by Sandy were foreclosed upon at twice the rate of those in similar neighborhoods elsewhere in the U.S., according to an Urban Institute study published in April. And the rate was higher in areas where a majority of residents were nonwhite.

The high mortgage delinquency and foreclosure rates have persisted, said Aaron Scheinwald of the New York Legal Assistance Group. The foreclosure rate in New Jersey—parts of which were also hit hard by Sandyis double the national average. Just last month, the state legislature passed a bill to extend foreclosure protection and relief programs for homeowners affected by Sandy.

The flight of working class homeowners from these neighborhoods has accelerated gentrification, as deep-pocketed investors and developers were best equipped to take on the financial risk after the storm. “Sandy happened, it was like ‘cash cow, cha-ching,’” said Alexis Foote, who has seen a massive increase in real estate development since she moved to the Rockaways in 2006.

This has led to higher rents and higher costs of living, and she’s struggling to keep up, Foote said.* But other options are limited. “Where are we going to go? We can’t go to Manhattan, we can’t go to Brooklyn, we don’t want to go to another state,” she said.

Hurricane Sandy showed how vulnerable coastal New York City is to the effects of climate change, particularly rising seas. The storm surge—as high as 14 feet in some areas—flooded nearly 90,000 buildings, left close to two million people without power, and caused $19 billion in damage. Scientists estimate that surges of seven-and-a-half feet will occur every five years by 2030.

But many homeowners didn’t know just how vulnerable their homes were, because flood risk maps don’t reflect the rapid changes taking place along our coastlines. Since 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which manages the National Flood Insurance Program, has been in the process of redrawing the city’s decades-old flood maps. Once they’re completed, tens or hundreds of thousands of additional New Yorkers could be required to buy flood insurance policies—and at higher rates, as FEMA attempts to pull itself out of $20 billion debt.

Roger Gendron, president of the civic association of Hamilton Beach, a middle-class neighborhood on the northern bank of Jamaica Bay, says that many people are struggling from higher flood insurance rates, and he’s worried about what further increases could do to the neighborhood. “If everybody down here all of a sudden saw that their flood insurance was up to $6,000, you’d see an outflux of people leaving,” he said, referring to a recent projection. “I don’t want flood insurance to be the reason why people leave the community.”

Reducing the cost of flood-insurance requires expensive renovations. Elevating a property, filling in the basement, and raising mechanical equipment onto the roof costs an average of $200,000, $29,000, and $21,000, respectively, according to CNYCN. These renovations can be costly in other ways: During the housing boom, predatory brokers convinced many homebuyers in Canarsie to rent out their basements in order to afford their mortgage. Filling in basements could deprive homeowners of rental income they depend on to keep their homes.

As these financial challenges mount, coastal New York homeowners are increasingly trying to get out. In a survey conducted by CNYCN, 23 percent of coastal homeowners interviewed said they were considering selling their home in the next five years. When asked why, they overwhelmingly identified concerns about flooding and rising flood insurance rates. “People are trying to stick it out in the home they’ve had, and they’ll fight to the end,” Scheinwald said. “But the end comes sooner for some people in terms of their financial capabilities, and emotional and psychological will, than it does for other people.”

When people are displaced in this way, options for relocation are limited. “If you wanted to sell your house, you couldn’t buy a condo on the lower east side, you can’t afford to buy somewhere that you’ll be near public transportation,” Jones said. The prices elsewhere in the city have skyrocketed since he and many of his neighbors bought their homes in Canarsie. “[With] the house you sell here, you can’t afford anything anywhere,” he said.

Years after Sandy, those who leave the city are unlikely to blame it on climate change. They might instead cite flood insurance costs, gentrification, or lack of affordable housing. Indeed, the economic climate retreat from New York “will be a difficult phenomenon to capture, because it’ll be slow and will be drawn out,” said Zachary Paganini, a doctoral student at City University of New York who has been studying the financial impacts of flooding in Canarsie. “There won’t be one day the flood insurance hikes kick in, or even one storm that causes a mass exodus from the coast.”

Instead, the climate retreat from New York will look a lot like getting priced out. “It will be folks along the coast fighting to hang on, trying to do what they can to maintain their houses,” Paganini said. “It may only be a phenomenon that we have to look back on ten years from now, and recognize what a massive impact it’s had.”

* An earlier version of this article misreported Alexis Foote’s initial rent at Ocean Village in the Rockaways, and how much she paid per month after the housing complex was redeveloped by L+M Development Partners. The passage has been removed. We regret the errors.