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house and home

What Homeowners Owe Others in the Climate Crisis

Property owners, who have so much to lose in the climate crisis, should not resist regulation. Instead, we must step up and take some responsibility.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A Queens resident cleans up on September 3, 2021, after a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused massive flooding and numerous deaths in New York City.

Last week, rain hammered New York City, filling the subways and the streets—and I was in the basement level of my apartment, frantically attempting to stem the waters coming in. I wouldn’t wish dealing with floodwaters in your home on anyone. It’s a terrifying, expensive, and often disgusting experience: During Hurricane Ida in 2021, when floodwaters inundated the city, my family watched, paralyzed, as water came flooding out of our toilet. 

On Friday, our weather apps in New York warned us of severe risks to “life and property,” and by the end of the day at least six basement apartments were so flooded that their inhabitants had to be rescued by the fire department. That’s scary, but thankfully minimal compared to the past. During Ida, 11 tenants drowned in basement apartments; during Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, many more New Yorkers are believed to have died this way.

For years, housing and climate advocates have been rightly calling for better regulation of New York’s subterranean homes, to make them safer and more climate-resilient. At present many basement apartments are illegal, making it difficult to get an official count on just how common they are, but data suggests they’re widespread: Between 300,000 and possibly as many as half a million New Yorkers are thought to live in basement apartments. Advocates say that if these apartments are legalized, tenants could report safety problems without fear of eviction. Last year the city’s comptroller made the same argument, pointing out that by 2050, one-third of the city’s basements and cellars will face flooding risk. 

But landlords and the politicians who represent them are divided over this solution. Some insist that legalizing basement rentals would add too much density to residential neighborhoods; others probably find it cheaper to keep their basement tenants living in secrecy so they won’t report problems. As a result, an effort to legalize and regulate the units failed in City Council earlier this year.

Even worse, and even more shortsightedly, New York’s property owners are fighting the city’s efforts to rein in their own contribution to the climate crisis. In 2019, the city passed one of the most ambitious municipal climate bills in the world, requiring owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to meet strict emissions-reduction targets—or face heavy penalties. The law is already helping to decarbonize the industry, but now, real estate interests are lobbying hard to weaken it. They’re joined by groups claiming to represent small co-op and condo owners like myself (though actually funded by the Real Estate Board of New York, REBNY, the powerful trade group representing the city’s big landlords and developers), who claim the law will be ruinously expensive for them.

I understand why this narrative might resonate. I too was nervous about how expensive the law might be, but I called the city and found out that like most buildings, mine is already in compliance with the law’s current requirements. It will get stricter in 2030, but we have time to plan for that.   

In attempting to roll back measures to make residential buildings more carbon-efficient, it seems the city’s real estate owners want to be able to continue to add carbon pollution to the atmosphere unhindered, worsening the problem and increasing the likelihood that more of their own tenants will drown in their basements. That’s unconscionable. 

It’s also stupid. I’m a property owner, and the climate crisis costs me time, stress, grief, and money—lots of money. My husband and I aren’t landlords or developers: We just own one apartment and live in it. But half of our condo is in the basement, and in recent years, climate change has been flooding and destroying it. We have had to spend thousands of dollars replacing the dryer, the washing machine, and the hot water heater. 

Homeowners’ insurance has helped us out in recent storms—but for how much longer? Insurance companies are refusing to cover homes in California, thanks to the intensifying wildfire season. Insurers have also been backing out of some coastal regions, due to sea level rise, while jacking up rates elsewhere. In August, the Council on Foreign Relations, or CFR, identified the climate change–driven collapse of property insurance as an economic crisis of sweeping implications. 

As the CFR points out, while there are many ways to put a Band-Aid on this problem,  the best solution is to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on the fossil fuel industry. That’s why, as a homeowner, I might whine and grumble if I need to replace my boiler in 2030—especially having just replaced it after Ida—but the fact is that without big climate policy like Local Law 97, it will be impossible for us to continue living in this apartment. The stress every time a hurricane hits will simply be too much, and repairing the damage will simply become too expensive. 

This isn’t just about my especially vulnerable basement apartment in a coastal city. Two-thirds of Americans own homes, yet all property, increasingly, poses a risk to the owner. Last year the climate crisis caused over $165 billion in property damages. And of course, while small owners like me can ill afford the damages, the big landlords have even more to lose. What regulations like Local Law 97 do, then, is to force property owners to act in our own long-term interest. 

With so many struggling to survive the climate crisis, grief over objects may seem frivolous, but that too is real. During Ida, a painting by a long-dead great aunt got water-stained, but it is such a beloved object I still have not thrown it out. This year, my only kid has just left for college, so it’s especially excruciating to throw out reminders of his childhood: a baseball glove, his elementary school yearbook, a decade’s worth of the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Financially, however, this storm went easy on us, unlike past hurricanes. We lost nothing too expensive. And even our past ordeals don’t compare to the sufferings of New Yorkers, mostly undocumented immigrants, who have lost family members in dangerous basement homes. We were relieved to be safe, but every storm makes us feel the precarity of our home. Property owners like us, who have so much to lose in the climate crisis, should not resist regulation; instead, we must step up and take some responsibility for the transition away from fossil fuels. It’s a civic responsibility, but we also owe it to ourselves.