Mayor Bill de Blasio today rolled out plans to make Lower Manhattan safer in the face of storms like Hurricane Sandy—and said the specter of increasing flood insurance premiums for that area and others posed a threat to keeping neighborhoods affordable.
“The insurance issue is a great concern, and it goes to the heart of the issue of affordability,” Mr. de Blasio, who has pledged to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in a decade, told the Observer during a press conference in Chinatown today. “I do believe there are some solutions, some that we can help with, some that I’d like to see more federal efforts to address. But it’s a real concern for us.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the process of updating flood maps, which were last drawn in the 1980s, for the city and surrounding region—and in preliminary maps has placed hundreds of thousands of homes in floodplains that were not there before, and has upgraded the flood risk of other properties. Being in a floodplain requires homeowners with federally backed mortgages to get flood insurance—which can be very expensive if FEMA determines there is a high risk of a flood.
Homeowners can mitigate that risk—and lower their premiums—by elevating their properties, something that is underway now in parts of Staten Island and Queens where single family homes are more common. But elevating will be impossible for the large brick buildings in Chinatown where the mayor stood today, and in other parts of Manhattan prone to flooding. For some homeowners who don’t mitigate flood risks, premium hikes could cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Mr. de Blasio and Daniel Zarrilli, the director of the city’s Recovery and Resiliency Office, said the city was taking numerous steps to forestall pricey increases—among them challenging FEMA’s preliminary flood maps.
“While we believe the floodplains are growing, we don’t believe they’re growing as much as the preliminary FIRMS—the Flood Insurance Rate Maps—say they are,” Mr. Zarrilli said. “And so we are working with FEMA to get to the right, accurate answers for those maps.”
The city is also working with FEMA, he said, to try to differentiate FEMA’s typical housing type—single-family homes on a one-acre lot—from the city’s housing stock, and to ensure “that we are also promoting the types of mitigation measures that can reduce premiums” in apartment buildings, not just standalone homes.
Mr. Zarrilli said the kinds of protections announced today—berms and removable flood barriers for the East River—can also reduce flood risk. It’s unclear whether FEMA will take those kinds of mitigations into consideration when setting flood insurance premiums for homes in the areas they are aimed at protecting, or whether they’ll actually agree to consider mitigations more fit to urban housing stock as Mr. Zarrilli suggested.
“We want to take a number of measures to protect whole communities, but also to Dan’s point there are things you can do about specific buildings, and some of that has an impact, clearly on the insurance rate, and trying to get FEMA to make adjustments for what an urban environment requires,” Mr. de Blasio said. “There’s still a lot playing out here that we think will help us to address those affordability issues.”
The city will spend $100 million to protect Lower Manhattan from flooding, creating an “integrated flood protection system” that will stretch from Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side around Manhattan to the northern end of Battery Park City. The system wills include some berms—essentially, earthen flood walls—and also removable flood walls.
“We’re trying not to wall ourselves off from the waterfront, and want to make sure that we can continue to access the waterfront, but be able to provide that flood protection when needed,” Mr. Zarrilli said.
The city will seek extra funding for the project through a resiliency competition being held by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to hand out recovery dollars.
It’s part of a $20 billion resiliency plan for the city, which also includes an Army Corps of Engineers project to erect levees and flood walls on the eastern shore of Staten Island, living oyster reefs offshore on the borough’s southern tip, and a large berm that will function as a park further north on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.