Partnership JournalismFebruary 2, 2021

Climate Change Threatens Homes of Boston's Most Vulnerable

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

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

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.

A little more than 1,500 of the state’s affordable housing units are at risk of flood waters reaching their buildings once a year on average, the analysis showed — a figure projected to triple to a little under 5,000 units within 30 years unless steps are taken to protect them. Boston, Quincy and Cambridge have the highest numbers of affordable housing units at risk within Massachusetts, the analysis shows. In thirty years, Boston alone could have more than 3,000 units at risk. 

It’s not just the number of homes at risk from coastal flooding that matters — it’s how often flooding takes place. During the next thirty years, increasingly frequent flooding is expected in coastal cities, creating public safety and maintenance challenges for those living in affordable units. By 2050, more than a quarter of Massachusetts’ affordable housing stock could experience flood events at least four times each year on average.

While residents of coastal cities from Texas to the Carolinas face the gravest flood risks from  tropical systems,  the most damaging storm systems in New England are nor'easters. Holding true to their name, strong winds during these storms buffet the coastline from the northeast. With open water, the surf builds and surges slam into the coast.

Flood events disproportionately impact people of color. Extremely low-income renters are more likely to be Black, Native American, and Latinx residents. Affordable housing is more vulnerable to flooding, as it’s usually built in lower cost neighborhoods with an abundance of paving but few trees and fewer protections from floods, such as seawalls and restored wetland.

When seeking solutions to worsening climate change impacts facing those most vulnerable to them, Carolyn Kousky — executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center — suggests looking to the environmental justice movement. The majority of those living in America’s most polluted environments are people of color. 

“We've seen communities of color and low income communities in the past have been saddled with excess risk from pollution, and things like that, and not gotten the safety measures they need,” she said. “We can't let that happen again with climate impact.”

Kousky says part of the solution lies in passing laws that require greater management of risks and preparations for disasters by business owners, requiring insurers and property owners to improve buildings, create evacuation plans and mandate insurance. “These need to be explicitly designed to help low and middle income families afford the disaster insurance and afford the mitigation measures that need to be taken,” she said.

Without these initiatives in place, the most vulnerable people living in the most vulnerable places end up bearing the heaviest consequences from a slew of flood risks — including storm surge, nuisance flooding during high tides and floods from heavy rain. All as the seas get higher.

Dominick Dusseau, a research assistant at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, says that climate change is playing a critical role in the increasing flood risks.

“The eastern part of the United States is going to face a significant amount of sea level rise,” said Dusseau. “By 2050, you're looking at about a foot of sea level rise. In 2100, you're gonna see about three to four feet of sea level rise.” 

In Boston, research shows these higher sea levels mean some low-lying parts of the city could experience at least 43 flood events within the next decade. These cyclones have pummeled Boston at a higher frequency and intensity in recent years, with three striking New England over the course of 10 days in 2018. 

“The real question here is ‘Has climate change created the conditions for those events to happen with greater likelihood?,’ Dusseau said. “And the answer is yes.'”

The Northeastern region appears to be moving into a stormy period, with a nor'easter building that's likely to affect Boston during the first couple days of February. Atmospheric conditions expected resemble those that have brought major flooding in the past, including in early 2018. 

Magdalena Ayed works in East Boston making sure locals know what they’re up against. Ayed is the founder of the Harborkeepers — an organization committed to creating awareness about the climate issues facing the predominantly Latinx communities living in East Boston. 

With almost 60% of the area's residents being nonnative English speakers, language can be the biggest barrier to city-led efforts to share information about climate change. 

De Jesus and her family moved to Boston from Puerto Rico when she was a child. They are among those in the area who feel under-prepared to deal with the consequences of climate change.

“We don’t know what's being done or what kinda help is gonna be available to the community — we don’t know,” she said. “We have to move…We have to start planning, that’s something that we have to start, but we don’t know.” 

It’s this confusion that Ayed and her team work to fix, as they partner with other local organizations to try and engage the community on climate issues. She's also been documenting high tides for the past few years. 

Ayed says the last few years have seen significant change, and it’s causing concern in the area’s waterfront communities. 

“I’ve been working with a lot of the communities in East Boston and a lot of them are vulnerable,” she said. “You see the water encroaching more and more, intense rains and flooding areas that perhaps weren’t normally flooded, and you know it is creating an infrastructure issue.” 

Early last year, Boston’s mayor committed to investing $30 million annually into the city’s climate resiliency in the face of rising sea levels and the growing threat of coastal flood risk. Across the city, streets are being raised, portable metal barriers have been installed around new high-rises, and berms — raised barriers made up of pebbles or sand meant to prevent high-tide flooding — are being built. 

As for those depending on affordable housing, the city’s inclusionary development policy mandates that 13% to 18% of new units qualify as 'affordable.' But there’s no requirement that existing, older units be fortified against climate risks. The diminishing availability of affordable housing in the area is also a factor — during the pandemic and the recession it has caused, Boston’s affordable housing wait lists have been getting longer. 

Ayed thinks the city is increasingly prioritizing strengthening Boston’s ability to withstand flooding and expand affordable housing stock — but that there’s more to be done. 

“When you think about evacuation and helping people adapt or mitigate the impacts in a storm event, that’s a big worry for the people here,” she said. “I’m not so sure that the city is catching up.” 

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