Floods Hit Renters Especially Hard Most landlords are not required to disclose if a property is in a flood plain or has flooded before. That's a big problem in cities where climate change is driving more frequent and severe floods.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/922270655/926809429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Most Tenants Get No Information About Flooding. It Can Cost Them Dearly

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/922270655/926809429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.