Friday, October 4, 2013

Are Miami's condos and apartments at a disadvantage for storm proofing?

A recent Atlantic Cities piece Why It's so Hard to Storm-Proof an Apartment Building highlights the disadvantages faced by multifamily apartment, condominium and co-op buildings when it comes to getting funds for repairs and protecting against future storms. After Sandy, single family homeowners are applying for FEMA funds for repairs to houses damaged by storm surge but multifamily buildings are not eligible for funds to repair common areas and utility systems. This is despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the New York housing units in the Sandy storm surge area were in multifamily buildings. What's more, New Jersey created a state fund that makes money available for raising homes above the flood plain-- an increasingly common plan in flood-prone areas, especially those dealing with higher flood insurance rates-- but this fund will primarily benefit single family homeowners since it's usually impractical to raise multifamily buildings.  

Along with the many other lessons from Sandy, Miami should be paying attention to this one too. Just like plenty of other cities in the path of hurricanes along the Atlantic coast, Miami has large concentrations of multifamily buildings. According to the latest census data about 38% of Miami households are in buildings with at least 3 units. There are certainly things that multifamily buildings can do to become more resilient to floods, like moving utility rooms off the ground floor and installing mechanisms for moving elevator cars out of harm's way. Cities like Miami Beach have included many of these features in their building codes for new housing, but older buildings need sources of funding to undertake expensive retrofits. 

Paying attention to older multifamily buildings is especially crucial because they are an important sources of housing for lower-income households. Households with incomes below $35,000 per year are about two times as likely to live in a building with at least 3 units, and twice as likely to live in a building built before 1980. And they're already struggling to find decent, affordable housing, since renter households in this income range pay a median 57% of their income in rent and utilities, about $869 per month. In many cases costly retrofits to older buildings wind up pricing out lower income households when rents go up. 

Preserving affordable housing is already a challenge in Miami, and climate change could make it harder. On the other hand, as more attention is focused on climate adaptation we can look for ways to address both challenges together. As I pointed out in a previous post on Miami Beach, neighborhoods that manage to keep affordable housing near jobs significantly reduce the need for cars, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention traffic!). Multifamily buildings are also far more energy efficient than single family homes, and they contribute to walkable and transit friendly neighborhoods as well.

As they are on so many other issues, it looks like cities will have to take the lead on resilience strategies for multifamily housing too. 

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