Invest in Resilience Before Disaster Strikes
Low-Income Communities Are Especially Vulnerable
Across the nation heatwaves, droughts and floods have become more frequent and more severe, increasing risks to people, homes, and infrastructure. Between 2011 and 2013, the U.S. experienced 32 weather events that each caused at least one billion dollars in damages.
Low-income communities are on the front lines of this damage, and they continue to be the most vulnerable. From the Chicago heatwave of 1995 that led to 739 deaths to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, these areas are often the first victims of extreme weather and the last to recover from devastation.
Investing in at-risk communities before disaster strikes is one of the most cost-effective ways to protect residents and property while increasing their ability to weather the severe storms ahead. At Enterprise Community Partners, our Resilient Communities Initiative works nationwide to strengthen communities and equip residents so they are better prepared for, and able to respond to extreme weather events and other emergencies. We provide technical assistance, grant funding, research and analysis, and build innovative tools to support this goal.
Defining Resilience; Public Costs of Inaction
Resilience is the capacity for households, communities, and regions to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain and regain functionality in the face of stress or disturbance. Enterprise works directly with communities, bringing together know-how, partners, policy leadership, and investment to increase resiliency nationwide.
Many low-income communities experience the same challenges around climate vulnerability. They were built on vulnerable land because it was the cheapest option, and now they face the uncertainty of a volatile climate, escalating home prices and a shifting economic environment. One storm, one tornado or one earthquake could mean massive displacement, economic disruption and complete dislodgement from their homes and communities.
These vulnerable communities are scattered across the country. They are the new single family homes sitting astride fault lines or on the path of mudslides along rocky hillsides; they are trailer park communities built on swampland; and they are costal island fishing communities struggling to stay afloat.
There are so many stories about resilient communities: families that braved tornadoes and managed to reunite, or neighbors that dragged water 15 stories to an elderly couple in a high rise public housing project. But disasters are complicated and challenging to recover from. There are only so many places to go and only so many nights you can sleep at a friend’s house or borrow a car, waiting for a reimbursement check that may not come for months. Short-term displacement can lead to long-term homelessness, temporary business closures can lead to a neighborhood-level economic downturn, and disruption of community services can lead to an extended loss of service continuity.
Each of these consequences increases public costs and compounds the health and economic challenges from which low-income communities disproportionately suffer.
How to Build Resilient, Affordable Housing?
The question before us is how to get the affordable housing and community development community, along with government and philanthropic partners to build more resilient developments.
The answer: design and build with resilience in mind, incorporating it from the beginning. We at Enterprise have created a number of tools to help developers and their public and private partners to develop resilient communities, including a survey to determine an organization’s resilience preparedness; a disaster staffing toolkit; strategies for multifamily building resilience; and more than 100 training videos, from how to eradicate mold to flood perimeter protection.
Take New Jersey developer Community Investment Strategies for example. Superstorm Sandy changed the way CIS thinks about developing and operating affordable housing.
One of a dozen affordable housing organizations selected to be part of our three-year Learning Collaborative for Multifamily Housing Resilience following Superstorm Sandy, CIS developed Bayshore Village in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown, N.J. Bayshore village is a new 110-apartment development that replaced a 96-apartment affordable senior community that flooded during Sandy, when residents evacuated in the middle of the night.
The Learning Collaborative provided a chance for CIS to learn from other Collaborative members, share challenges and lessons, and receive vital support in the recovery and rebuilding process.
“The Learning Collaborative has really changed the way I think about design, development, and new construction in a way that so many things have become a matter of course,” says Barbara Schoor, vice president at CIS. “Certain things have become inherent in the way we now do business.”
Step one in the development involved raising the elevation of the site, including the parking lot, to above flood elevations in the state issued maps. Elevating the site as opposed to the building created a more accessible building for senior residents and helped to bring the underground utilities and mechanical systems damaged by Sandy saltwater above the floodplain. CIS also created an area on the site where stormwater and potential floodwaters could be captured to protect the neighboring community.
Building techniques and materials, including impact-resistant windows, were used to make Bayshore Village more wind and water resistant, and a large emergency generator was installed to power the security and controlled-entry systems, the fire alarm system, elevators, common areas, stairwells, and hallways in an emergency.
Finally, the community room was designed as an emergency shelter for residents, with heat and air-conditioning, including a bathroom with a shower connected to the generator.
Resilience goes beyond the site and building, however. Resilience is also about human systems and ensuring that residents understand their role and are connected to services in an emergency. CIS developed with their resident coordinator a program to set expectations of CIS’ role as the landlord and to educate residents about their responsibilities to prepare for a storm, power outage or other emergency.
Resilience benefits; Lessons for the field
Bayshore Village represents the brick-and-mortar results from Enterprise’s Learning Collaborative for Multifamily Housing Resilience. While it is only one example, the approach CIS took, incorporating resilience thinking from the beginning, holds lessons for every stakeholder involved in community development.
The design and engineering community must incorporate climate adaptation in the same way that energy efficiency and sustainable design is already being considered. Cities, states and localities must look beyond code and ensure that future flood risks and future resource depletion is also acknowledged in their design standards.
Adopting these practices and incorporating resilient design to our nation’s homes and infrastructure would benefit more than just the families and individuals living in vulnerable communities. Resilience improvements can reduce operating costs over the long term by increasing energy and water efficiency, thereby reducing waste and excessive resource usage; and by reducing insurance premiums and risk to business continuity. These improvements can also increase interest from potential funders, ensuring that their investments will have long-term payoffs.
Investing upfront in resilient infrastructure before disaster strikes is a prudent approach that yields financial and social benefits, protecting the most vulnerable residents while strengthening our communities.
Laurie Schoeman is the National Program Director for the Resilience Initiative of Enterprise Community Partners, a proven and powerful nonprofit that improves communities and people’s lives by making well-designed homes affordable. Laurie oversees Enterprise’s national efforts to develop climate-resilient communities, seeking to strengthen them so they are better prepared for, and able to respond to, extreme weather events and other emergencies.