Report Highlights Resiliency Costs in Multifamily Housing

The NYU Furman Center recently released a report that examines the challenges of retrofitting New York City’s multifamily housing stock against future climate threats. The report, entitled "The Price of Resilience: Can Multifamily Housing Afford to Adapt?" was the culmination of collaboration with government officials, architects, engineers, and housing policy experts.

Focused on the challenges facing multifamily buildings, the report details design solutions and offers policy recommendations for city officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that may help remove barriers to achieving long-term resilience in this stock. The project was conducted in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“Storm-proofing a dense, older city like New York poses unique challenges,” said Jessica Yager, Policy Director at the Furman Center and co-author of the study. “The city is largely built out, and over 90 percent of the multifamily buildings in areas vulnerable to flooding were built prior to 1983 when flood-resistance standards were added into the building code, so we are faced with the challenge of retrofitting older buildings, rather than only tightening standards for new construction.”

The report details how much of the national guidance on retrofitting residential properties is geared towards one- to four-family buildings, reflecting the national housing stock. But FEMA’s new flood insurance maps place nearly 5,000 multifamily buildings—housing 170,000 units—in New York City’s 100-year floodplain. “The majority of privately owned, multifamily rental buildings in the floodplain have rents that are regulated through a subsidy program or through New York’s rent stabilization law,” said Yager. “Thus, some resiliency measures, such as eliminating units below the predicted flood level, could result in the loss of thousands of units of affordable housing.”

Even without the potential for a loss of units, a building’s location in the flood zone could also serve as a threat to affordability because of recent changes in flood insurance rules. Property owners in the 100-year floodplain face the difficult decision of bearing the burden of making costly retrofit improvements or facing skyrocketing flood insurance premiums in the coming years if their properties don’t meet certain design standards.

“Buildings with regulated rents will have a particularly hard time implementing resilience measures to protect themselves from future storms,” said Yager. “But if they do not take protective measures, they may face dramatically rising insurance premiums and potentially unsafe conditions, situations that could lead to unsustainable operating costs or, in some cases, pressure to convert to market-rate.”

The report concludes by suggesting local and national policy reforms that may help multifamily buildings achieve long-term resilience, including:

  • FEMA should modify the guidelines for its National Flood Insurance Program to provide more guidance to multifamily buildings, and it should explore providing partial insurance relief for partial mitigation efforts.
  • New York City should consider expanding the zoning changes it passed after Superstorm Sandy in the 100-year floodplain to cover buildings in the 500-year floodplain.
  • New York City should revisit its existing rehabilitation subsidy programs to ensure that resilience measures can be readily funded; and it should require that buildings in the 100- and 500-year floodplains that it assists have adequate emergency and resilience plans.