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City Eyes New Push to Buy Out Flood-Prone Houses

October 29, 2021 Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY.

The de Blasio administration wants Congress to fund a voluntary buyout program modeled on efforts launched after Superstorm Sandy, which hit nine years ago this week. The devastation wrought Sept. 1 by Ida has spurred calls to re-up the “managed retreat” strategy.

When Patricia Snyder’s oceanside bungalow was demolished, relief washed over her like a wave.

The then-resident of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, knew she wouldn’t have to ever again deal with what she’d endured due to Superstorm Sandy. The storm brought six feet of water into home and led to the drowning of her brother, Leonard, who lived nearby.

Her home — and those of her daughter and her brother — were three of the hundreds of damaged houses the state agreed to pay for and knock down in Staten Island in the wake of Sandy, which made landfall in the city on Oct. 29, 2012.

“The majority of the neighborhood decided they were done with it, tired of their restless nights worrying about high tides, all of that,” Snyder said.

Now she and her husband live less than two miles from where their former house stood, in a home they moved into about a year after Sandy hit.

Her daughter took the buyout and moved to Pennsylvania with her kids, which means Snyder doesn’t see her grandchildren as much as she’d like. And Snyder misses the quiet of the beach and close-knit community.

But she wouldn’t go back to her old neighborhood.

‘Housing Mobility’ on Tap

Spurred by Sandy, the state’s buyout program — as well as the city’s more limited version — was unprecedented for the area at the time.

Since then, the practice has been on the back burner when it comes to resiliency efforts.

But now, amid some calls for buyouts for Queens and Brooklyn residents who have long experienced frequent flooding — underscored by the record rain brought last month by remnants of Hurricane Ida — the city may be inching towards another program.

Mayor’s Office of Resiliency Director Jainey Bavishi.
Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resilience, told the City Council last week that the administration is asking Congress for funding for a possible voluntary buyout program.

In an interview earlier this month with THE CITY, Bavishi said that any climate-minded “housing mobility” program should be “explored in conversation with New Yorkers, based on individual risk tolerance.”

“There’s a lot more work to do to explore what this looks like and how it plays out in our city,” she said. “We can start these conversations with New Yorkers and be intentional and proactive and have a lead time to take intentional steps, rather than react to a disaster or be displaced because we have policies that are forcing displacement or financial impact New Yorkers can’t afford.”

Bavishi’s office is conducting outreach to learn how to best meet the needs of the most vulnerable New Yorkers before engaging in planning and policymaking, according to Michael McCann, a climate adaptation specialist with The Nature Conservancy, which is teaming up with the city on the effort.

A Hard Sell

Buyouts and acquisitions are forms of a climate change adaptation strategy known as managed retreat, in which people, buildings and other infrastructure are moved away from risks, such as coastal or inland flooding.

In both cases, governments purchase property from homeowners. In buyouts, the property is returned to nature, not to be developed. Acquisitions, on the other hand, can lead to future development that is, at least theoretically, more resilient.

After Ida, some residents in Queens who have experienced repeated flooding — and still await governmental aid — have inquired about possible buyouts or acquisitions.

Councilmember Peter Koo, whose district includes Flushing, said he’s heard many homeowners who have asked for the city to purchase their houses and transform the properties into green space.

“Right now, it’s really hard for them to sell their houses,” Koo said. “If the city bought their houses, they would have the money to move somewhere else. They don’t want to live in the same place. Every time it rains, they worry.”

Amrita Bhagwandin, 52, is one of the several residents of low-lying Hollis, Queens, who want the city to buy them out. She’s been staying with her sister-in-law and in a hotel provided by the Red Cross since remnants from Hurricane Ida deluged her home.

“I love this place. It’s very diversified. I feel very much at home here,” she said. But after facing repeated flooding over the years, Bhagwandin would rather move somewhere drier.

“This is my home. I’ve invested everything in it. I’ve paid a lot of money for it …  and I have cleaned it up and rebuilt it so many times,” she said. “I want some accountability from the city for this.”

Amrita Bhagwandin was forced out of her Hollis, Queens, home due to damage wrought by Ida.
Photo by Christopher Alvarez/THE CITY

‘The Bottom of a Pit’

Her neighbor Anita Hack, 53, a receptionist who’s lived in the area for nearly three decades, would love to move to Long Island or upstate, if only the city would offer a good deal.

“It’s nice out there, peaceful and quiet. We don’t have to deal with this water up to our chest,” Hack said.

At some point, the cost of rebuilding and protecting homes and critical infrastructure might outweigh the cost of moving people out, and that may be true for low-lying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.

“These people have been flooded constantly since before Sandy, and the city’s been promising to fix that for years. It doesn’t seem to be working,” said James Rubin, who oversaw the state’s recovery and buyout programs after Sandy. “You could spend a billion dollars on two streets and maybe fix it. It may make more sense to pay people really fair prices to leave and make sure they get relocated.”

A hallmark of a successful buyout program is having nearly full community buy-in, Rubin said — but of course, not all residents will want to leave.

Jennifer Mooklal, 33, who works at a florist, doesn’t want to give up her home in Hollis and disrupt the lives of her young kids. She expects any buyout program would be complicated and time-consuming.

Her extended family lives in the neighborhood and she’d prefer the city invest in elevating her house so she can stay without constant worry.

“We literally live in the bottom of a pit,” she said.

‘So Devastating, Traumatic’

After Sandy, New York State launched a $276 million pilot program to buy out 721 homes in Staten Island and other areas of the state. Of that, $202.8 million was spent to buy out 504 properties on Staten Island, including in Oakwood Beach, Graham Beach and Ocean Breeze. The state prohibited future developments on the land.

The effort came in large part thanks to Staten Island resident and real estate agent Joe Tirone, who convened a committee of neighbors in Oakwood Beach to convince the state to buy them out. Tirone lives in Castleton Corners on the North Shore but owned a rental house in Oakwood Beach. His tenants fled New York after the storm.

His ultimately successful campaign led to the state offering homeowners the pre-storm value of their homes — plus incentives for staying in the city.

“From a financial perspective, the buyout is complete recovery, and then some,” Tirone said. “The whole mental thing? I don’t think you ever recover from that because it was so devastating, traumatic.”

Nature reclaimed the properties where the houses once stood, which is heartening to some residents, like Snyder.

“I would hate to come back and see mansions built because people like to be near the water,” Snyder said.

 


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