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Why Atlantic City’s minority neighborhoods are also its most flooded

 

ANDREW S. LEWIS | NJ Spotlight

When Veronica Grant reflects on growing up in the Venice Park section of Atlantic City in the 1970s, regular nuisance flooding isn’t a memory that comes to mind. Yet these days, high tides spill across the neighborhood’s streets and yards so frequently that Grant can’t keep count.

Flooding has been a reality in Atlantic City since its founding a century-and-a-half ago, but it has never been as frequent as it is today. Since 1911, the city’s tide station has recorded 1.36 feet of sea level rise, which, in a low-lying municipality like Atlantic City, equates to whole swaths of blocks that once stayed dry during the highest tides being flooded in the same events today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that, by 2050, Atlantic City will see between 65 and 155 nuisance flooding episodes a year — roughly 10 times more than the current frequency.

In the mid-20th century, back-bay neighborhoods like Westside, Back Maryland, Venice Park, Ducktown, and Chelsea were hastily built on thinly filled marshland to accommodate the city’s surging, predominately Black and immigrant labor force. Federally- and state-funded flood protection projects were mostly reserved for the eastern side of town, where the boardwalk resorts — and, later, the casinos — glimmered beside the ocean. Meanwhile, the back-bay neighborhoods fell into disrepair, their crumbling infrastructure largely ignored.

“We just got overlooked and underfunded,” said Grant, who still lives in Venice Park today.

Atlantic City’s troubled relationship with the gaming industry has driven its decline, but new research from the real estate brokerage Redfin adds another layer of understanding about why the city’s original land-use miscalculations were allowed to fester in perpetuity — and along racial lines.

A new redlining legacy: disproportionate flooding

The study, called “A Racist Past, a Flooded Future,” looked at maps created between 1935-1940 by the federal agency Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which segmented American cities by race and ethnicity. Predominately white neighborhoods were consistently labeled as desirable, thus safe for bank and mortgage lending, while Black and immigrant neighborhoods were deemed undesirable. These neighborhoods were outlined in red and yellow on the maps; the racist practice came to be known as redlining.

Seventy years later, American cities still reflect the agency’s segregated maps — nearly 60% of households in redlined neighborhoods are nonwhite, compared with just over 40% in areas considered desirable.

Using flood-risk data from the research group First Street Foundation and redlining maps compiled in the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project, the Redfin study analyzed 32 million properties in 38 major U.S. metropolitan areas. They found that $107 billion worth of homes at high risk of flooding were categorized by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation as “Definitely Declining” and “Hazardous.” In “Best” and “Still Desirable” areas, there are only $85 billion worth of homes at high risk of flooding.

Camden and Newark were the two New Jersey cities included in the Redfin study, and both are near the top of the list of metropolitan areas where redlining maps overlay the highest flood risk. Camden ranked fifth, behind Chicago, Boston, New York, and Sacramento, with 2.9% of its flood-risk homes in areas that were green- and bluelined, compared with 7.3% in yellow- and redlined neighborhoods. In Newark, 4.5% of homes in green- and bluelined communities are at risk of flooding as opposed to 7.1% in yellow- and redlined places.

“Minorities had already been relegated to living in areas with poor infrastructure, including areas with high flood risk,” said Sheharyar Bokhari, a Redfin senior economist. “Redlining exacerbated this further through keeping home values depressed and barring investment by marking these areas as ‘high risk’ for lending.”

Racist maps, ignored communities

Atlantic City was not analyzed in the study, but even a cursory look at the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s maps reveals a clear correlation between redlining and current areas of high flood vulnerability.

Jim Kennedy, who in the 1990s was the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency in charge of ensuring casino funds are allocated for public and private projects in Atlantic City and elsewhere, agrees. “The redlined district absolutely falls in the worst flood zones,” he said.

The neighborhoods of Westside, Back Maryland, and the western flank of Atlantic City’s downtown were all mapped as “Hazardous.” In their notes, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s surveyors connected the area’s housing stock, which they deemed “minimum shelter or . . . no longer fit for human habitation,” with the fact that its population was entirely Black and employed by the city’s hotels and resorts.

Elsewhere, the surveyors highlighted the shifting of “better class Jews” to other parts of town, and “infiltration” by Italians. In the city’s blue-lined section of Lower Chelsea — a wealthier, predominately white neighborhood adjacent to the beachfront — the surveyors wrote that this was “the only portion of Atlantic City proper which can be classed as still desirable residentially.” But, they warned, the area was having “difficulty resisting encroachment” from the city’s rooming-house business, which served its poorest — and mostly nonwhite — citizens.

In Venice Park, the surveyors seemed particularly unimpressed. Noting that the neighborhood was adjacent to the city’s sewerage disposal and gas plants, they wrote, “This area has very little if anything, to commend it.”

‘Traumatizing’ circumstances

Superstorm Sandy laid bare Atlantic City’s severe flood vulnerability, but also finally sparked significant investment — most of it from federal and state sources — in infrastructure to mitigate the city’s intensifying flooding issues.

In 2018, for example, roughly $30 million was spent on a steel bulkhead and rock revetment along the city’s Absecon Inlet shoreline, and a century-old drainage canal, which had been defunct for decades, was repaired and upgraded for $13 million. More plans include new bulkheads and berms in the Chelsea Heights and Lower Chelsea neighborhoods, as well as street and structure elevations, emergency generators, and public awareness campaigns.

But many of these projects fall within eerily recognizable borders: those delineated as “desirable” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. The most striking example is a plan to install new bulkheads in Atlantic City’s formerly blue-lined — or “Still Desirable” — Lower Chelsea neighborhood. The project stops almost exactly where a once yellow-lined section of the city begins — an area that a former local political official joked should be renamed “Atlantis.”

In the nine years that have passed since Sandy, circumstances have changed little or not at all in Venice Park, according to Grant. “I can show you plenty of places where nothing’s been done, where drainpipes are flooding, and bulkheads are rusted out,” she said.

Most of Venice Park’s Riverside Avenue and Drive shoreline remains without bulkheading, allowing for high water to pour into the streets quickly and easily around Grant’s yard. (Because bulkheads are the responsibility of property owners, the city has no real jurisdiction over them.) But, in an area where the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funded a $14 million bulkhead reconstruction project that was completed in 2009, homeowners have noticed holes in the structures that are regularly breached by high tides.

“Venice Park has really fallen on hard times,” said Kennedy, who had left the authority prior to the bulkhead project. “In the last couple of years, it’s really begun to fall apart.”

Grant estimates that around 35 homes in the neighborhood were rendered uninhabitable by Sandy and remain abandoned today. Her grandmother’ s home is one of them. According to Grant, in the mid-2000s many seniors in the neighborhood, including her grandmother, had been coaxed by a door-to-door salesman into taking out reverse mortgages on their homes. When, after Sandy, a contractor walked away with Grant’s grandmother’s money without finishing the necessary repairs to make her home habitable again, she was forced to move in with Grant. Leaving her home rendered it unoccupied, thus in violation of the mortgage company’s terms, and initiated monthly payments she could not afford. The bank has since put the home up for sale.

The seniors in the neighborhood who obtained reverse mortgages are in the same situation, Grant said. Studies have shown that reverse mortgages and predatory lending practices disproportionately impact Black Americans, many of whom live in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

“You have seniors who had nothing really done for them after Sandy,” Grant said. “It was traumatizing.”

Turning a corner on historic inequities?

Despite the continued imbalance in attention, a more holistic approach to the city’s flood mitigation strategy appears to be formulating.

Through the newly created Atlantic City Resilience Program, last year the state transferred $20 million from its Blue Acres Buyout Program to in part build or upgrade flood mitigation infrastructure in the once yellow- and redlined neighborhoods of Ducktown and Chelsea. The funds will also support the inspection and/or replacement of stormwater check-valves — simple yet effective devices that help drain nuisance flooding from streets — throughout the city’s back-bay region.

In Ducktown, which today is predominately Asian and Latinx, as well as Atlantic City’s poorest neighborhood, a steering committee of concerned residents was formed with money from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The group — a first among the city’s 11 neighborhoods — put together a revitalization plan that focuses on preserving and rehabilitating Ducktown’s historic buildings, and on improving quality of life.

With the U.S. facing some $20 billion in annual economic damages from future flooding, Bokhari, the Redfin senior economist, stressed that Atlantic City stands to benefit from studies like Redfin’s, and flood maps like those generated by First Street Foundation, so that they may deploy limited resources equally and fairly.

“Our study highlights the need for equity to be part of the conversation during any flood mitigation strategy discussion,” Bokhari said. “Given that these economic damages have and will continue to disproportionately impact minority communities, flooding is indeed one of the U.S.’s most pressing environmental justice issues.”

For Grant, any substantial help coming to Venice Park seems like a far-off proposition. “I hope so,” she said. “But I’m 53, and it’s still flooding. So, I doubt it.”

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