Waiting for the next storm,Part 2: Elderly and disabled on the waterfront

This is the second in a three-part series focusing on areas of Connecticut’s coastline that are vulnerable to flooding. In the first installment, we visited Morris Cove, one of New Haven’s most desirable neighborhoods. For this story, we headed to a very different residential area on the shoreline: Czescik Homes, a public housing complex for the elderly and disabled in Stamford.

Click through the slideshow to read an abbreviated version of the story. The full text version is also below.

STAMFORD – Like much of the public housing that exists throughout the U.S., Czescik Homes was built decades ago on land nobody else wanted — and only a few years after devastating hurricanes inundated much of downtown Stamford, killing hundreds of people.

“This housing should never have been built on the banks of the Rippowam River,” said Stamford’s Mayor Michael Pavia. “But unfortunately, it [was].”

The complex has 50 units, all in one-story buildings with no floodproofing mechanisms. They are located in the 100-year floodplain about 6 to 8 feet above high tide levels of the river just a hundred feet away, 

The Rippowam River is a tidal estuary, subject to surges of nearby Long Island Sound. During Superstorm Sandy, the storm surge was 8 feet above normal high tide level, said Vin Tufo, director of Stamford’s housing authority. Water came within inches of flooding all the complex’s units “by several feet.”

“Everything is vulnerable” to another storm, Tufo said. “There’s nothing above the first floor.”

Patricia Williams, who has lived at Czescik Homes for 10 years, is tired of evacuating before every storm — even storms much smaller than the scale of Irene or Sandy.

“I was praying. I was crying,” she said, recalling the latest evacuation as Sandy loomed. “I…[took] everything up and put it way up high in case the river came in.”

“I got home three days later and thank God. It got to the back door and that was it. So I was happy.”

But next time, she may not be so lucky. So Stamford plans to rebuild Czescik Homes in a new location on higher ground.

Such an approach is different from those in many other coastal cities which have public housing on the waterfront, such as Bridgeport and Norwalk. There, residents suffered significant damage from Sandy, but because of high land costs, the towns cannot rebuild the complexes elsewhere. Instead, they are seeking money to floodproof the buildings.

Stamford was able to find land to relocate Czescik Homes by partnering with a local nonprofit organization and leasing land from it for a dollar, so the cost of the project is a relatively low $13.5 million.

The city hasn’t secured all the funding yet, so it will likely be several more years before the project is complete. Until then, residents will have to keep evacuating before every storm.

“We’re concerned that with rising sea levels generally, and potentially, the increasing severity of storms, that [the complex] will be increasingly vulnerable,” Tufo said.

So far, he said, the city has $3 million through local funding and grants for the project. It will have “easy access” to another $8 million in tax credits available for low-income housing, as well as loans from the state and private investors. He’s waiting for $2.5 million more to begin construction.

“We are chasing every conceivable dollar we can…to get these folks to safe ground,” Pavia said.

The mayor recently spent time in Washington lobbying for the final $2.5 million. He hopes it will come from $72 million in Sandy relief money distributed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. That was given directly to the state, however, and so far Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office has not yet disclosed a final plan for who will be eligible to use the funds.

Urban planners of the past have been held responsible for placing cities’ most vulnerable residents in areas like this one. In New York City, public housing built on the waterfront in the Rockaways, Coney Island and Alphabet City suffered damage that tenants there are still struggling to recover from.

In New York City, more than 35,000 units of public housing were damaged in 402 buildings. Most of them are more than 30 years old and were already crumbling. Nearly 80,000 residents live in those buildings, and many were left without power for days if not weeks. The number of units damaged make up nearly one-fifth of all units owned by the New York City Housing Authority.

For residents of places like Czescik Homes, the vulnerability is twofold — not only are their homes in danger of flooding, but they themselves are mentally and physically fragile. Evacuating such residents during storm situations is complicated and risky, city officials say. There are no medical facilities adjacent to the current complex, either. The new location will feature a medical office and other amenities.

Czescik Homes resident Patricia Williams said she enjoys living there. “I like my neighbors, and we all look out for each other,” she said. The complex is downtown, which gives her easy access to the train station and grocery stores. But the constant evacuations have worn her down, she said, and she’s ready to leave.

While housing on one side of the Rippowam River will be removed altogether, an office building is going up on the other side. A giant concrete wall is expected to protect the building from flooding during future storms.

That land is the property of Building and Land Technologies, a development company that has built thousands of new apartments in Stamford in recent years. So far, the Norwalk-based company has not disclosed who will move into the new complex, prompting locals to dub it the building with the “mystery tenant.”