Climate Change Threatens Homes of Boston’s Most Vulnerable

 By Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central) and Christopher Gloninger (NBC Boston) and Ale Zimmermann (NBC Boston) contributed reporting

In East Boston, affordable housing units are at risk of flooding as the sea level rises.

This video and text story was produced through a collaboration with NBC Boston.

Roxanne De Jesus remembers seeing the waves spill out of the harbor in East Boston. A nor'easter — that grew in force so suddenly it was dubbed a “bomb cyclone” — pushed tides as high as Boston has seen in nearly a century.

“For the first time, we saw the water come out of the harbor,” she said. 

It was early in 2018 and the storm drove the highest tide she’s seen in 22 years from her home at East Boston’s Shore Plaza East apartments. The building is one of many affordable housing units at growing risk of coastal flooding. De Jesus lives on the second floor and a lack of information about climate change has left her dreading that it could one day flood. She says she can't afford insurance.

“We would start from zero with nothing,” she said. 

Residents of affordable housing units, like De Jesus, face greater risks from rising seas and worsening coastal hazards. That’s because older residential buildings in lower-income communities that provide affordable housing opportunities are usually not fortified against storms or coastal flooding. 

The threats to these buildings are growing, too, as heat trapped by fossil fuel pollution intensifies storms and raises sea levels. An analysis by Climate Central's scientists found that Massachusetts has the third highest number of affordable housing units under threat of coastal flooding in the nation.

As low pressure systems form off the coast, nor’easters can develop with explosive speed when ocean temperatures are high enough. With the waters of the Atlantic warming because of the effects of greenhouse gas pollution, such bomb cyclones pose growing threats.

Defined by the federal government as costing 30% or less of an average local household's income, affordable housing is an already scarce resource, leading to rising rates of homelessness locally and nationwide. It’s one that’s only projected to get worse, as coastal flooding and intensifying storms continue to threaten coastal homes and neighborhoods.