Increasingly unequal cities are building housing on flood plains, and it’s a terrible idea

Houses in Long Beach, New York, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Image: Getty.

Many cities around the world face a lack of affordable housing in and around expensive central business districts. Employers want cheaper labourers, who need more affordable housing in accordance with their lower salaries, to live nearby. So developers are invited to build on flood plains, without consequences. And often there is no public involvement in the decision.

Flood plains are easy to build on because they are flat and, in cities, they tend to be close to amenities. Yet all parties involved in housing know that cities are facing more rainfall and flooding due to climate change. Cities are now starting to prepare for catastrophic floods. and research has estimated flooding losses in countries like the United States to be increasing dramatically.

Irresponsible and autocratic choices made by elites, at Waterfront Toronto for example, leave unsuspecting, lower-paid professionals in dangerous circumstances with rising insurance costs and potentially bad investments. That’s because, in the future, flood insurance may become prohibitively expensive or insurers may decide not to cover such high-risk properties, making them difficult to sell.

Flood risks worldwide

Difficult housing choices are reflective of a broader loss of worker power and associated income inequality. Research shows that densely populated areas are more vulnerable to disasters — the same disaster affects more people in dense environments. And where there is income inequality, there are more victims of natural catastrophes.

Cities dominated by appointed, un-elected officials, such as the board members of Waterfront Toronto, are helping to generate this inequality.

In the U.K., where there’s an ongoing housing crisis, government has approved building on flood plains as long as the new homeowners are made aware of the risks in advance. At least the British are having an honest conversation about it. In Toronto, we are not.

New Orleans has long relegated its poorer populations to lower elevations by the Mississippi River, where floods and subsequent disease have devastated the city. The terrible treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s victims in New Orleans is a continuation of an enduring history of racism.

Research also describes how in the flood plains of Bangladesh, income inequality is related to a higher risk of flooding and lower preparedness to deal with floods.

In South China, increasing rainfall has left millions of the poor living in such dangerous low-lying areas that China’s president has called in the army.


Public space can be climate-adaptive

Today, most North American coastal cities are in danger of climate-related sea level elevations and storm surges. Hurricane Sandy caught New York’s elite off guard because they became victims too. It didn’t matter whether you were in the Upper East Side or in Harlem.

In wealthy south Florida, saltwater rises not only directly from the sea, but also up through porous limestone, so Miami cannot use the same climate adaptation approaches as in some other cities, like adding green space. Miami is working to add pumps and other infrastructure instead.

Toronto could turn its remaining waterfront space into parkland, instead of housing developments, as a protective barrier.

New York City is going to build a wall around the lower part of Manhattan, and add a park. The Dutch are using public space to absorb floodwater. New Orleans is building parks to double as reservoirs for floodwaters, on the advice of the Dutch.

Toronto’s recent floods a wakeup call

Toronto has had a few waterfront floods over the years, including this year and last, damaging the Toronto Islands in 2017. The city faced several storms in 2018 with violent winds and flooding downtown. Some wealthy Torontonians are leaving the city for private lakefront properties in cottage country, but others live within limited space affected by the aftermath of catastrophes. The Toronto Islands recovery, for example, is still ongoing and has not yet been fully paid for.

Meanwhile, new Toronto lakefront condominium developments are proceeding in the Quayside and Portlands neighbourhoods, near the Islands, on flood plains historically contaminated by heavy metals, oil and coal. “Workforce housing” is a required part of the plan.

Will Flessig, former Waterfront Toronto CEO, says that middle-income professionals are expected to settle in the waterfront condominiums so that they can be closer to where they work.

But no one in Toronto is talking about the flood plains, since elected officials apparently consider the issue resolved. Based on a plan developed in 2007, the federal and provincial governments are investing $1.2bn to reconstruct the mouth of the Don River so that the water safely flows into Lake Ontario.

However, the waterfront area still remains a flood plain, and is still affected by storm surges associated with climate change.

Building on flood plains has serious consequences, including future uninsurable buildings as insurance companies anticipate they won’t be able to afford the payouts. A single major flood causes a great deal of damage and requires insurance companies to pay all at once. With a higher frequency of catastrophic floods and the corresponding required payouts, the pool of insurance premiums collected to cover the losses dries up, and insurance companies face bankruptcy.

Before that happens and buildings are left derelict, people and property are endangered. We recently saw life-threatening flooding of buildings in Toronto, and there are limited rescue personnel to address all of the issues at the same time when mass floods happen.

Simultaneously, damage to personal property can be overwhelming — for example, to cars and contents within condominium lockers in underground parking garages. In Toronto, we have also seen streetcars submerged in water recently with people trapped inside.

Fixing the damage therefore adds costs to public transit. Water quality and disease concerns are also heightened as storm sewage systems cannot handle increasing rainfall volumes. Over the longer term, repeated flooding also weakens building foundations.

Hard to manage water levels

On a broader scale in the Great Lakes region, the ability to adapt to changing conditions is reduced. That’s because the ability of water officials to manage water levels is much more difficult when condominiums and other housing is built on flood plains.

For example, water flows are somewhat controlled in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River watersheds through an international agreement called Plan 2014. If buildings are in the path of water flow, this complicates and limits the range of adjustment options.

We know now what we’re confronting. Let’s learn from past mistakes. In the best interests of homeowners, the public and climate adaptation, what’s left of Toronto’s waterfront should be public parks, not condominiums billed as “workforce housing”,.

Deborah de Lange, Associate professor, Ryerson University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.