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Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer04/25/2023

When affordable housing and community development organizations look at climate resiliency, they approach it from many different angles. Some focus on solar. Others focus on landscaping, HVAC systems and building new homes that can withstand the storms to come. In New York, Home HeadQuarters and Community Development Corporation of Long Island (CDCLI) focus on helping homeowners whose property may have been damaged by past storms, with the goal of preventing the same thing from happening again.

The initiative, created and funded by New York State Homes and Community Renewal (NYS HCR) in partnership with the two NeighborWorks network organizations, is known as the Resilient Retrofits Program, and offers loans of up to $50,000 to residents at a 1% interest rate. These loans, which are primarily for flood mitigation, are available to homeowners earning up to 120% area median income whose homes are wholly within the 500-year floodplain.

Announcing the retrofit program in Erie COunty."There are $9 million in loan funds available for homeowners to make flood resiliency and climate resiliency improvements," says Kathleen Walpole, director of program strategy for Home HeadQuarters. Part of her job is managing the program, which covers Broome County, Erie County, Kings County, Queens County and Suffolk County. The organizations did a soft launch in March, publicizing their toll-free number (1-833-DRY-WARM). Since then, Walpole says, "The phone has definitely been ringing."

One client she's spoken with talked about adding basement drains. Another said the foundation of the home she's lived in for 47 years is cracking. Another wants to repair a sump pump and add a heat pump. 

Walpole grew up near "The Southern Tier," eight counties in rural, upstate New York, and has seen the devastation flooding can bring. "I've known about the possibility of flooding my whole life," she says. "We grew up hearing about flooding that happened in Binghamton and Broome County. People kept facing damage and the loss of their homes, but they were stuck due to economic constraints. I'm glad to provide them with this new opportunity in New York State."

FEMA and flood insurance help, but there are things they don't cover. As climate issues continue, including increasingly stronger storms, she says, "We need to provide ways for people to stay in their homes and not lose their livelihoods. This is the kind of program we need now and probably even moreso in the future."

Rachel Wieder, chief of staff at NYS HCR, says it's important to think about climate resilience in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. "We are living in a world where the temperature is getting hotter. We have increased storm surges and increased rainfall," she says. As residents make improvements to shore up against these changes, "we want to make sure affordable housing doesn't get left behind." 

So while New York is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with a goal of bringing statewide emissions to net-zero by mid-century, leaders are also focused on assisting regions that can adapt to changes in climate. That's where the retrofits program comes in. 

"These are areas where there is a flood risk, but it's a manageable one," Wieder says. Still, as risks increase, there are measures that families can take now to protect themselves and their homes. "It might mean filling in a crawl space or basement, or moving heating and cooling systems above the base flood elevation, or installing flood vents so the water can come in and go back out without causing damage to a home." 

Home HeadQuarters and CDCLI applied as partners to run the program, with Home HeadQuarters taking the lead and CDCLI providing insights and connections in the lower part of the state. Wieder anticipates helping 180 homeowners over the next two years, but as loans are repaid, she says, there may be more. "The idea is to help homeowners who want to stay where they are and understand flood risk – and want to see their insurance costs goes down." 

Jeanmarie Buffett, senior vice president of Housing, Development and Planning with CDCLI, says most of Long Island's south shore (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Suffolk and Nassau Counties) is home to low-lying areas in the coastal flood plain. 

"Climate change makes these areas all the more vulnerable to flood impacts due to both sea level rise and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events," she says. "In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy, which caused a massive high-tide storm surge event, more than 50,000 homes had major and severe damage documented by FEMA Individual Assessment data. The combination of these coastal flood impacts coupled with the high cost of construction create unique challenges to resiliency improvements in our downstate region."

There's a perception that all coastal homes in these counties are located in affluent communities. "But there are many clusters of financially constrained homes and homeowners woven throughout." Many of those households struggled to recover from Superstorm Sandy. "The Resiliency Retrofit Program aims to support those homeowners today and far into the future by providing support to address resiliency modifications."

Clare Rosenberger, director of Real Estate Programs at NeighborWorks America, says across the network, NeighborWorks network organizations are taking the lead on both mitigation and adaptation efforts in their communities. "Both are necessary," she says. "We know that updating homes to use less energy while also making our buildings stronger and safer can potentially protect human life. They're both an important part of building strong, resilient communities."

In August, NeighborWorks will host a symposium focusing on how climate equity fosters wealth, health and resilience in communities of color. The symposium, "Climate Resilience: Fostering Wealth, Health and Sustainability in Communities of Color," is the third in a series all built around equity. The symposium will be held during the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Chicago, Aug. 21-25, which will also feature a new course, "Climate Mitigation: A Toolkit for Community Developers."


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