Most Tenants Get No Information About Flooding. It Can Cost Them Dearly

Oct 21, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 1:06 pm

When Amanda Daniels found an affordable first-floor apartment in Wicker Park, a hip Chicago neighborhood, she was excited.

"It had a washer and dryer, which is like gold. And it had a huge shared patio space," she remembers. "I was like, 'This place is awesome.' "

Daniels was living paycheck to paycheck at the time. The year after she moved in, a summer rainstorm flooded her living room with brown water. It destroyed her rug and table, but she salvaged what she could and moved.

If that had been Daniels' only experience with flooding in Chicago, she might have never given it a second thought. But another apartment she lived in flooded in 2016, and a third one this summer.

In five years, floods have destroyed more than $10,000 of Daniels' belongings. None of her landlords told her about flood risk. If she had known, she says, she might not have rented some of the apartments that eventually flooded, or she might have purchased insurance that covers flood damage.

Climate change is fueling flooding in much of the U.S., from coastal areas that are seeing the effects of sea level rise and wetter hurricanes to inland cities and towns struggling with extreme rain.

In more than half of the states, people who purchase homes receive information about flood risk. What's more, many homeowners in the most flood-prone areas are required to purchase flood insurance, which means mortgage lenders inform them of their flood risk. That's in stark contrast with tenants: The vast majority of renters such as Daniels are not entitled to any information about flood dangers.

An NPR review of the laws in 29 states that require disclosure of flood risk during real estate transactions found that only one mentions tenants. That law, in Georgia, doesn't apply to everyone who rents: Landlords must only make a disclosure if an apartment or rental home has flooded at least three times in the previous five years.

The lack of information leaves tenants unprotected against floods, says Miyuki Hino, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Because tenants are less likely than homeowners to understand their flood risk, they are also less likely to have adequate insurance. Typical renters insurance does not cover flood damage.

As a result, those who rent houses or apartments in flood-prone areas are putting their safety, belongings and financial security at risk without knowing it.

"You go into these apartments, and they look beautiful," Daniels says. "You don't think 'I'm at risk for flooding.' But you should know what you're getting involved in."

Beyond coastal cities

Coastal cities face more flooding as sea levels rise and climate change drives more frequent major hurricanes. But the lack of flood risk disclosure is particularly notable in cities not located on the coasts, and where the sources of flooding might be less obvious to residents.

The largest such city is Chicago. As climate change makes extreme rain more common, Chicago has suffered repeated floods. About 77,000 properties in Chicago are at significant risk for flooding over the next 30 years, according to a recent analysis by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit environmental data group.

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"With tenants, people could just be moving around the city and be sitting on sort of a flooding time bomb, and they have no idea of it," says Marcella Bondie Keenan, program director of climate planning and programs for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a think tank in Chicago that released a recent report on urban flooding.

More than half of Chicago residents are renters, according to 2019 census data. The same is true in other major cities, including Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. Nationwide, about a third of Americans rent their homes. People of color are more likely to rent because discriminatory housing, employment and banking policies over the decades have kept many from owning homes. As a result, more than 70% of white Americans own homes, while fewer than 50% of Black and Latinx Americans do.

Bondie Keenan says the total number of tenants being harmed by urban flooding is difficult to ascertain because many people don't want to speak publicly about flood damage to rental properties. Some fear retaliation by landlords, and others are overwhelmed by the damage and feel they have no recourse to fix it.

"There is definitely a sense of shame and embarrassment, to the point where it kind of kept people from organizing around the issue because no one wanted to admit that they had that problem," Bondie Keenan says.

But the scale of the flooding problem among tenants is clear to Philip DeVon, a Chicago attorney who works with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a tenant advocacy group in Chicago. Flooding often comes up on the group's hotline, which gets about 10,000 calls annually, and most callers say they were not told that flooding was a possibility, DeVon says.

"I've never had someone call who expected the flooding or was even told it might happen," he says. The Illinois Rental Property Owners Association confirmed that information about past flooding or future flood risk "is not routinely shared with tenants."

A 2018 storm caused widespread flooding in Boston, including in the Long Wharf area. Boston is one of many U.S. cities where underground apartments are common, and weather-driven flooding is an increasing threat to them.
Michael Dwyer / AP

Exacerbating inequities

The tenants at the highest risk are those whose living space is underground. Many people rent such apartments because they cost less.

In Chicago, for example, some affordable housing includes basement units, Bondie Keenan says. Underground apartments are also among the most affordable options in other cities on the front lines of climate-driven flooding, including Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Renters who lost their belongings in a flood are ineligible for some types of federal assistance available to homeowners. Federal disaster aid programs "end up funneling aid to homeowners rather than renters," the University of North Carolina's Hino says. So there is less of a safety net available when renters lose their belongings, or when flooding renders their apartments uninhabitable.

As a result, the lack of flood risk disclosure to tenants likely contributes to unequal outcomes after flood disasters. Research after recent floods has found that renters who experience major disasters and do not have savings to fall back on are more likely to go bankrupt and to see their credit scores drop in the years after a disaster. And renters who are not white are even less likely than their white counterparts to receive federal aid after a flood, according to recent research about disaster assistance.

Stalled protections

Congress has both the incentive and the power to improve disclosure of flood risk to tenants and homebuyers. The vast majority of residential flood insurance is provided by the federal government and backed up by taxpayer dollars, including flood insurance policies covering the belongings of tenants. The National Flood Insurance Program is about $20 billion in debt due to increasingly widespread flood disasters.

But repeated congressional efforts have failed to overhaul the program and provide more information about the location and frequency of flood risk. One reason is that elected officials of both parties fear that more flood disclosure could drive down their constituents' property values.

Kevin Donnelly, vice president for government affairs for the National Multifamily Housing Council, says his group has worked on multiple plans that would give tenants information about past or future flooding. But he says that the "provisions have never been enacted as a result of the congressional stalemate over reauthorizing and reforming the [National Flood Insurance Program]."

A handful of flood-prone states, including New York and Virginia, have considered new flood disclosure requirements in recent years. But the proposals haven't made it through the state legislatures and would only apply to potential homebuyers, not renters.

A new flood disclosure law in Texas, adopted after Hurricane Harvey hit the state in 2017, requires that people selling homes disclose to buyers if the building was damaged by flooding, or if it is in a flood plain or has flood insurance. But landlords or property managers are not required to disclose the same information to renters.

The impact of flooding on tenants is so prevalent in Houston that multiple candidates running for City Council last year advocated for new rules requiring that flood risk be disclosed to tenants. So far, the city has not enacted such a requirement.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

About a third of American households rent. And if you happen to rent in one of the millions of properties that are prone to flooding, you probably have no idea you're living in harm's way. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports it's a problem that's only worsening as climate changes.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Renters are concentrated in cities, and cities are flooding more - you know, like what happened in Houston in 2017.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Most of America's fourth-largest city is now underwater.

HERSHER: Or actually, no, no - let's do Boston, 2018.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Massive flooding swept through Boston, turning streets into slow-moving rivers.

HERSHER: Never mind. Let's talk about the floods in Atlanta last year.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The all-day downpour causing flooding on the streets of Atlanta...

HERSHER: You get it. Flooding is a serious problem in a lot of U.S. cities, even ones that aren't on the coast, because climate change is driving more extreme rain. Marcella Bondie Keenan runs climate programs for the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

MARCELLA BONDIE KEENAN: People could just be moving around the city and, you know, be sitting on sort of a flooding time bomb and have no idea of it.

HERSHER: That's because in most places, landlords aren't required to disclose anything about flooding to their tenants, either past flooding in the apartment or future flood risk. Take Chicago. Bondie Keenan says a lot of the most affordable housing there are so-called garden apartments, where most of the living space is below ground. The same is true in other cities where flood risk is increasing - New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. And so people with the least money are often living in the most danger. Lori Burns lives in Chicago and works with Higher Ground, a national advocacy group for people who have survived floods.

LORI BURNS: People in garden apartments, literally everything they own is ruined, done, gone, disappeared. Like, just - they had to throw it away. Like, their whole house is ruined.

HERSHER: And, Burns says, even people who rent multistorey houses are being hurt by flooding. It's happening in her own neighborhood, Chatham, on the South Side of Chicago. It's a pretty part of the city.

BURNS: Primarily single-family homes, tree-lined streets, small backyards, garage, alley.

HERSHER: She says no one would ever guess that the neighborhood floods.

BURNS: There is no huge or even small natural body of water anywhere near us.

HERSHER: But the neighborhood has had the most flood damage of any place in Chicago in recent years. When it rains, water pours into a lot of finished basements.

BURNS: TVs, sofas, games - you know, this is a hangout space - or even extra bedrooms are downstairs.

HERSHER: She says people who own homes in the neighborhood know not to turn the basement into a living space. Like many states, Illinois requires that homebuyers be told if the basement floods or if the home is in a floodplain, but there's no requirement for landlords to tell tenants the same information. And the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association confirms that flood information is, quote, "not routinely shared with tenants." And nationwide, many realtors and real estate developers groups have opposed more stringent flood disclosure laws. Marcella Bondie Keenan says the long-term effects of not disclosing flood risk are enormous.

BONDIE KEENAN: It's not just property damage, but it's people's health impacts, and it's their lost wage time to do cleanups.

HERSHER: Health impacts, like the ones from mold, not to mention the mental health impacts of losing everything you own. And undisclosed flood risk is an even bigger problem this year. Tenants in flood-prone apartments are just one flood away from being displaced during a pandemic.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.