January 3rd was the most recent spring tide here in Norfolk. Unrelated to the season, spring tides occur twice a month and are the higher high tides during which the waters “spring” up onto usually dry land. Last November was Norfolk’s latest king tide, or highest high tide, which covered yards, roads, and sidewalks all over the city. Tidal flooding is also known as “nuisance” or “sunny day” flooding because it’s unrelated to storms or precipitation but is a regular occurrence influenced by the moon’s proximity to Earth. However, heavy rain or wind during a high tide can raise the water level or push it further inland. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and storms to be stronger with more intense rainfall. Norfolk has one of the highest rates of sea-level rise in the country since, at the same time, the waters are rising, the city is sinking. “Nuisance” flooding is becoming “A severe problem” flooding.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING AT RISK
Although more “general population” housing units see more exposure to flooding overall, those living in affordable housing are more adversely affected due to compounded vulnerabilities like limited transportation, financial resources, and availability of other affordable housing units (AHUs). Affordable housing is typically constructed in less-desirable areas because it is cheaper to develop. Granted, “less-desirable” can take many forms – for example, a low-lying or flood-prone area, somewhere inland without a pretty view of the water, near an industrial site, or in a neighborhood that is already economically distressed (hello redlining, our old friend).
In the US, 75% of all flood-risk AHUs are in just 20 cities, including Norfolk. Norfolk currently has 114 AHUs that are at risk of flooding each year. That is 114 low-income households at risk of having their lives disrupted by flooding. That is 114 families with homes damaged, belongings lost, schedules derailed. One hundred fourteen people would have to take (likely unpaid) time off of work to get the damage fixed or run the logistical gauntlet of finding a new place to live. 114 AHUs that could be rendered uninhabitable. Each year. Projections for 2030 indicate the number of AHUs in Norfolk exposed to annual flooding could be as high as 327. By 2050, over 700.
Tidewater Gardens is one of three public housing communities at the center of the St. Paul’s redevelopment, and it is the first slated for demolition. Residents of these low-income, flood-prone communities have the advantage of a purpose-built program dedicated to helping them find new housing during the redevelopment. This program, called People First, was established in 2018. But according to reports by Sam Turken and Ryan Murphy with WHRO, the program’s effectiveness has been limited. Tidewater Gardens has about 600 units. Including the Young Terrace and Calvert Square communities bring the total number of AHUs to 1700.
AHUs are in the pipeline for demolishment, with 4500 residents needing relocation. So far, over 300 residents have been relocated, with varying levels of triumph and grief. Judgment of the People First program is not the purpose of this article, but there is an important question here. Recognizing that the pandemic undoubtedly complicated matters, this three-year-old organization, with $3.5 million in annual funding, struggles to relocate a fraction of its target population. What will Norfolk look like as more and more people living in flood-damaged AHUs have to go it alone? Hopefully, People First will streamline their operation and compile a Lessons Learned or Best Practices document that other Norfolk organizations and residents can use in the future.
Three central pressures are squeezing AHUs:
- Many landlords will not accept housing vouchers, which many low-income households use to pay their rent. This source-of-income discrimination is illegal under state law though not enforced.
- Many AHUs are at risk for tidal and storm surge flooding. The supply of AHUs is undergoing restrictions both artificially and naturally.
- As my colleague Alex Fella explained in a recent article, AHUs are being used as investment vehicles by corporations with no interest in providing housing; they purchase the building, raise the rent, hold it for a few years, then resell for a profit.
The Virginia Apartment Management Association has said that the state’s rental industry does not view sea-level rise as a priority.
These factors further restrict the housing options of people who are already struggling.
On a personal note, in 2015, my rented house in Austin, TX, flooded from torrential rainfall. For weeks, my roommates and I got the runaround from the property manager and landlord. Meanwhile, the house sat soggy and mildewing. I’ll never forget that smell; it clung to my stuff for months. We ended up breaking the lease and moving out. I was privileged to have the finances (paying penalty fees, losing my deposit), the friends (a place to stay, help with moving), and the options (plenty of other places willing to rent to me) to do so, and it was still one hell of a time.
GENPOP AT RISK
Of course, low-income renters are not the only people affected by tidal flooding and sea-level rise – one would only need to look at the high waters in the wealthier Larchmont and Ghent neighborhoods. But socially vulnerable areas are often overlooked. Protecting a quiet, inland neighborhood on the edge of the Elizabeth River from creeping sea-level rise just isn’t as sexy as fortifying oceanfront (or bayfront) property from a ferocious storm. It certainly isn’t as “economically” justifiable; redlining rears its ugly head once again. Historically, people of color were excluded from the “desirable” neighborhoods and settled with what was left, often low-lying or other marginal lands. Those policies reverberate today as homeowners in these neighborhoods experience flooding, expensive repairs, buyouts, and lowered property values.
Buyouts are a potential solution to flooding in which the government (federal, state, or local) buys and demolishes a building that has been or is likely to be flooded. Their purpose is to stop spending money repairing repeatedly-flooded structures and create more permeable surfaces to absorb and filter water.
Buyouts also come with a host of problems. Bureaucratic red tape can drag the process out for months, leaving homeowners in limbo. Meanwhile, private developers buy, flip, and resell properties, perpetuating the problem. This process disrupts community ties and severs social support systems. These piecemeal buyouts diminish environmental benefits, leaving the neighborhood looking sad and abandoned and demoralizing those who remain, all of which lower the chances that they will get a reasonable price on their home should they decide to accept a buyout. What to do with vacant land after a buyout is another issue (my two cents is “nothing,” that’s the point). And the thorniest question of all – where does one go after being bought out?
For people needing AHUs, the answer is starting to look like “nowhere.”
Catie was born in Norfolk and as an adult has lived here for two years and change. She has a master's in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. She likes hiking, playing trivia, being a flaneuse, pinball, memes, and growing vegetables.