The Life Aquatic: Norfolk’s Managed Retreat Puts Housing into Focus

by | Jun 21, 2022

 And when I outgrow that, then take me down to the ocean, for then I will be beyond destruction.
-The Shatapatha Brahmana

On May 10th, 2022, a pair of ocean-front homes in the Outer Banks collapsed into the sea along a stretch of coast south of Norfolk, Virginia. At that very moment, Norfolk was experiencing a spat of tidal flooding, which inundated major thoroughfares and saw ducks bobbing down neighborhood streets. Three days earlier, Norfolk City Council huddled to pass their annual budget, dedicating a sizable amount to keep the Mermaid City from sinking. As part of their package, Norfolk earmarked $70 million for floodwall construction — a matching contribution to the $250 million already promised by the Army Corps of Engineers. Their plan aims to buffer downtown’s floodwall with more flood gates and pumping stations and extend the wall 1.5 miles to Campostella Road, protecting St. Paul’s Quadrant and Harbor Park. But in attempts to hem in Downtown Norfolk with more substantial walls and better pumps, residents in other neighborhoods are left to rely on increasingly innovative measures to adapt to rising water.  

Housing has long been a stumbling block for Norfolk’s attempts to adapt to flooding. In part because 248 houses — worth nearly $60 million collectively — are at risk of permanent inundation by 2030, as reported in a 2018 study. By 2060, the number of houses at risk jumps to 2,607 — in total worth $722 million. Such a prodigious loss of housing and tax revenue made former Mayor Paul Fraim quip that flooding in the city comes with a “$1 billion down payment” (an ironic match-up given the city’s $1 billion deficit). Moreover, that price tag is hardly offset by the “Resilience Penny,” which is only 1/10th of a penny mill tax that funds resilience projects across the city. Ultimately, Norfolk’s endeavors will fall short of saving every house from rising water. Fraim noted in a rather morbid calculus that Norfolk will have to decide which neighborhoods to protect and which to let flood, or as he phrased it: “contain water all the time.”

To help with their calculus, Norfolk penned Vision 2100, a far-seeing resiliency playbook whose orders are to save the swamped city. Vision 2100 carves up Norfolk’s neighborhoods into multiple colored zones, Green, Purple, Red, and Yellow, organized according to their flood-risk level. Green and Purple zones are neighborhoods at low risk from flooding and ripe for new development. Red zones are flood-prone neighborhoods deemed culturally and economically sufficient enough to demand sizable investments to protect against flooding, like the seawall expansion. Red zones include Downtown Norfolk, Ghent, and the Naval base. Norfolk’s Yellow zones are more thorny–neighborhoods that are too flood-prone to warrant red-zone-sized investment in long-term flood protection, including Larchmont, Colonial Place, and Ocean View. Norfolk encourages homeowners in Yellow-zones to “take the lead” to adapt to rising waters, trusting they will find “their own solutions.” But while Norfolk’s plan offers “adaptation” and “resilience,” such terms dance around the reality that in some neighborhoods, “adaptation” reads more like “retreat.” Concern was a focal point when Governor Northam remarked last December, “in some places, we’re going to have to focus on moving people and structures out of harm’s way.”

Even though Norfolk’s prospects appear bleak, the city’s flood issues could spark innovation that would ultimately allow for more affordable housing options. Guided by Vision 2100’s, Norfolk adopted a new zoning ordinance in 2018 that incentivizes developers to build new projects in low-risk zones by requiring more resilient building standards in high-risk zones via the ordinance’s Resilient Quotient Program. Developers must complete specific requirements or earn a threshold of “points” based on the risk district they are developing to build new projects. There are many options for accumulating points through the program, including installing solar panels, constructing a rain garden, and installing a green roof. One creative option outlined in the program but not yet utilized is a developer’s ability to fund the extinguishment of development rights on a high flood risk parcel, which earns more points than any other option outlined.

This option presents an opportunity to shake up how we view housing in a city with serious flood risk. Through this extinguishment of development rights option, developers could fund buyouts throughout the city while allowing homeowners to remain on their property until the risk becomes too great. At that point, the city would demolish the structure, with no future development permitted, allowing for the renaturalization of the land. So, how can this program not only help the city’s flood problems but also provide affordable housing to its residents?

Because developers are fronting the cost of buying out homes, this gives the city or another housing/community organization an opportunity to rent back these properties to individuals at a lower price. A similar program proposed in California creates a revolving loan fund that would fund home buyouts and then use the rent money received from the tenants to pay off the loans over time. In Norfolk’s case, the buyout would be paid off entirely up front by a developer, meaning that the city could allocate the rent money to pay for future buyouts or other flood resilience projects around the city. The tenants of the home could either be the original homeowners or someone else, and they would only remain in the home while it is safe to do so, all the while being able to: 1) save money on rent to invest in a future home and 2) contribute to a meaningful environmental movement that will surely be attractive to younger, transient residents. 

Affordable housing options in Norfolk are already at risk due to flooding, but this imagined program would allow affordable housing stock to move with the water over time. As houses are bought out, they can be utilized as affordable renting options until the flood risk becomes too great, at which point they are demolished so nature can take back the land. This process would continue upland as homes are removed from the proximity of the flooding source. Wash, rinse, repeat — or in this case, buy, demolish, flood, repeat. Allowing nature to move into the landscape in this manner actually reduces flood risk and preserves species’ habitat, which is rare and vital in urban communities. With a projected 89% loss of Virginia’s existing tidal wetlands by 2080, every little bit helps. Establishing a program like this will indeed have challenges along the way, including ensuring that underserved communities are not displaced for the benefit of more affluent homeowners. Innovative ideas such as this can be a defense for a city facing down rising waters that threaten to ensure the Mermaid City lives up to its moniker. After all, mermaids live in the sea, not on land.

Madison Teeter

Ghent, NFK

Madison works at Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based environmental nonprofit. She was born in Virginia, and graduated from NC State - go Pack! In her free time she likes to take an annoying amount of pictures of her hound dog, Jolene, and her tortie kitten, Frankie. 

Madison Teeter

Ghent, NFK

Madison works at Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based environmental nonprofit. She was born in Virginia, and graduated from NC State – go Pack! In her free time she likes to take an annoying amount of pictures of her hound dog, Jolene, and her tortie kitten, Frankie. 

Alex Fella

Alex Fella is a writer and researcher, his work focuses on the built environment and the natural world. He is the Director of Research at the Urban Renewal Center and the founder of CityWork, an organization that empowers nonprofits with research and data mapping. He is a 4th year fellow at the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society & has a master's in Philosophy from Yale University. He enjoys fixing old cars and rooting for the Montreal Canadiens

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