Home to more than 4,000 New Yorkers, the residential campus of Marlboro Houses, in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, is made up of 28 buildings and is situated in a semicoastal location.

With almost one-third of U.S. housing units at risk from climate change, protecting existing affordable housing and residents from coastal storms, heavy rain, and extreme heat is essential. With so many risks at play, a comprehensive approach to properties and portfolios is needed to protect vulnerable homes.

Enhancing green infrastructure, floodproofing buildings, retrofitting to net zero or Passive House standards, and integrating resilience into building operations and finances can go a long way toward this goal, according to a recent report by an expert panel convened by ULI.

In 2021, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) enlisted the help of ULI New York and the Institute’s Urban Resilience Program through a virtual technical assistance panel (vTAP) to assess how to boost climate resilience at one of its residential campuses, Marlboro Houses, in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn. Home to more than 4,000 New Yorkers, the residential campus is made up of 28 buildings and is situated in a semicoastal location. In 2012, the site was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, with residents experiencing basement flooding and heat and power outages lasting up to a week.

In the aftermath of Sandy, NYCHA received a record $3 billion in federal relief funds to restore and upgrade its properties, and at the time, Marlboro Houses was among several dozen campuses slated to receive funding and support. However, because of its public/private funding status, the site was deemed ineligible for post-Sandy relief, meaning creative finance strategies were needed for resilience solutions.

A catalyst for immediate action to build resilience at campuses across NYCHA’s portfolio since Sandy, the organization has made it a priority to address climate vulnerabilities while maintaining a strong emphasis on improving the livability of its residents. As the country’s largest public housing and development corporation located in a city where the shortage of affordable housing has reached a crisis point, NYCHA’s mission to provide increased opportunities for low-income residents to access safe and affordable housing has both urgency and a chance for widespread impact.

The panel, part of ULI’s Resilient Land Use Cohort (RLUC), leveraged synergies across interconnected climate resilience issues. For instance, installing bioswales and rain gardens across the site’s abundant surrounding landscapes can help better manage stormwater, promote public spaces for gathering, and reduce the heat island effect.

Thinking broadly across hazards like flooding and extreme heat, the panel encouraged NYCHA to link strategies between physical building improvements, landscaping, and long-term resilience planning to address resilience holistically. In the final report produced as a result of the vTAP, panelists recommend that NYCHA:

  • Implement green infrastructure and enhance the neighborhood’s landscape assets and their environmental value to absorb floodwaters, increase biodiversity, and improve recreational spaces for residents.
  • Pursue building retrofits to achieve net zero/Passive House goals and floodproofing, minimizing residents’ risk from flooding, to extreme heat and indoor air quality issues.
  • Create a long-term resilience plan, and prioritize gathering key resilience data to guide future investment and management to ensure both short- and long-term resilience needs of residents are met.
  • Leverage NYCHA’s recent organization-wide funding strategies announced in A Blueprint for Change to cover costs of resilience measures.

Innovative approaches include a building retrofit model used by Riseboro Community Partners that reskins existing buildings with new, all-in-one facades that incorporate enhanced insulation, air sealing, and externalized mechanical systems, securing deep energy reductions and protection from extreme temperatures. Coupled with floodproofing vulnerable first floors and shaping the landscape to redirect stormwater, the campus can greatly reduce its physical risks from climate change – an approach that can be replicated elsewhere.

While the panel focused on Marlboro Houses, Joy Sinderbrand, NYCHA’s Vice President for Recovery and Resilience expressed the importance of the panel’s ability to broaden lessons learned for other NYCHA developments, and beyond. “A lot of solutions presented [by the panel] cut across departments and divisions, and rightfully so, which is a challenge in an agency this large but reinforces how important it is that solutions aren’t in the silo of one particular unit or perspective, especially when it comes to the operationalization of capital improvements,” she remarked.

The panel’s recommendations arrive amidst broader climate resilience work the agency is undertaking. In their recently published Climate Adaptation Plan, which outlines steps to prepare NYCHA’s buildings for climate risks, Executive Vice President for Capital Projects, J. Steven Lovci, sets the tone emphasizing that the plan “is a call to action and an invitation as NYCHA works with our residents, environmental advocates, community-based organizations, and other agencies to leverage the information we have to adapt to the changing climate.”

The vTAP’s recommendations for Marlboro Houses are called out in this plan as a means of integrating resilience as part of the “comprehensive modernization” of NYCHA’s assets, and as reinforcement of NYCHA’s effort to comprehensively address climate resilience and fine-tune their understanding around buildings and areas most vulnerable to hazards like flooding. In upcoming RFPs for modernization efforts at Marlboro Houses, NYCHA will integrate the vTAP’s recommendations as a cohesive plan for long-term resilience.

With climate risks on the rise, housing providers must prepare their assets and protect their occupants. Fortunately, as this and other previous ULI panels, like the 2020 Advisory Services Panel (ASP) in Toronto, Canada lay out, there is a chance to build value and create sustainable, healthy, climate-ready places to live, and to create a roadmap to resilient, affordable housing.