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Rising sea levels threaten affordable housing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is already a nationwide shortage in affordable housing. And there's something that could make things worse - sea level rise. In the coming decades, it's expected to put tens of thousands of low-income housing units at risk of major flooding. Sam Turken of member station HRO reports from Norfolk, Va., where this is already playing out.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: The Tidewater Gardens public housing complex in Norfolk features more than a dozen red-brick, two-story apartment buildings. Families barbeque on weekends. Kids play basketball, frolic around playgrounds. Another common sight - flooding.

TISHA MELTON: Oh, my God. You need a boat.

TURKEN: Tisha Melton's lived here the past seven years. And she's seen it all - the high tides and rainstorms turning parts of the neighborhood into a lake.

MELTON: I will bring my car as close as I can to my porch. And then I will hop in through the passenger side and - like that.

TURKEN: You would, like, crawl over.

MELTON: (Laughter) Yeah.

TURKEN: The reason it floods so much is because this low-lying area actually used to be a creek connected to a nearby river. Then, more than a century ago, Norfolk started filling it in and ultimately built this sprawling public housing community. But now with sea level rise, city officials see the waters taking the land back. Kyle Spencer is Norfolk's deputy resilience officer.

KYLE SPENCER: And so we want to kind of let the flood plain act more naturally, kind of go where the water wants to go and where it used to go.

TURKEN: The city plans to build a huge park with multiple ponds and wetlands to help drain flood water. But that means Norfolk has started demolishing all of Tidewater Gardens, more than 600 units.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

TURKEN: The city will build a mixed-income community around the new park. Officials say the public housing residents will be able to come back. But for now, Norfolk's housing authority is giving them vouchers to pay for somewhere else to live, when they find somewhere else to live.

MELTON: This process has been hell.

TURKEN: Tisha Melton hasn't left Tidewater Gardens yet. She's looked for a new place nonstop since September. She's tried, like, 80 different rental homes - 80.

MELTON: The competition is crazy. The property owners are boosting up their rent. So it disqualified people with a voucher.

TURKEN: Melton, who's a housekeeper, says the search is especially stressful because she's been homeless before. Now she's raising a 3-year-old son and vows to prevent him from going down the same path as her older son - prison.

MELTON: If I did not raise him in poverty, my son that's in prison, he would have had a better chance. I was a good mother, but you cannot help when the streets get a hold of your children.

TURKEN: You hear these stories about the housing search over and over again. Norfolk officials say they're helping families find new housing, but the city just settled a lawsuit with Tidewater Gardens residents, agreeing to increase the value of vouchers to cover more expensive apartments. The settlement also forces Norfolk to build more affordable housing and crack down on landlords illegally rejecting people just because they use a voucher. Sarah Black is an attorney representing the families.

SARAH BLACK: The settlement doesn't solve the problem of forced relocation outside of the community. But it does give them more hard units.

TURKEN: So that's one community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says it's trying to make public housing more resilient to climate change impacts. But nationwide, there's a shortage of millions of all types of low-income rental units. So what if many of them start going underwater?

PRIYA JAYACHANDRAN: We cannot afford to lose any units. We've got a hole. And instead of filling it up, we would be creating a bigger hole.

TURKEN: Priya Jayachandran is president of the National Housing Trust. She says this problem has been overlooked because it will play out over decades. The solution is building more affordable housing on higher ground. And Jayachandran says that will require changing zoning rules that restrict multifamily housing.

JAYACHANDRAN: If we want to develop, we have plenty of land to do it. We just have to be willing to change the character of our neighborhoods and embrace density.

TURKEN: Otherwise, Jayachandran says, millions more people could end up in the same position as the folks in Tidewater Gardens, desperately struggling to find somewhere else to live. For NPR News, I'm Sam Turken in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.