Coastal communities adapt to change by razing and raising

As Connecticut’s shoreline braces for a hurricane season forecast to be one of the worst in years, it is still digging out from the damage of previous storms.

Along entire stretches of coastline in Fairfield and Milford, rows of homes are boarded up, some marked for demolition with thick red paint. Many have already been reduced to rubble.

These coastal neighborhoods are also busy with construction activity. Workers are raising and expanding existing homes, or building large, taller homes in the place of old ones. 

The interweaving of tearing down homes and rebuilding, or simply building anew, tells the story of neighborhoods in transition.

“This whole question of flood insurance, the requirements, the bills, it is changing the face of our shoreline,” said Deb Chamberlain, the President-Elect of the Connecticut Association of Realtors. “And it is changing the financial situation for a lot of the folks who live there.”

The severe damage from storms, coupled with new federal regulations that require many shoreline residents to raise their homes, will push many residents out, Chamberlain said. 

Already, she estimates that housing along Connecticut’s waterfront has lost 15 percent to 20 percent of its value.

“The smaller homes are going to be bought up by people who are in a more secure financial position to self-insure and to deal with a potential loss. And you’re going to see the small homes be replaced by much bigger homes over time.”

Small homes in danger

In Milford and Fairfield’s waterfront neighborhoods, most smaller houses appeared vacant. Severe damage had not yet been addressed, and neighbors who fared better said the occupants were either waiting for insurance money to return home, or had given up.

“I know a number of people who had to move after living here, virtually 30, 40, 50 years, just because they couldn’t afford to rebuild their homes,” said Ken Lee, who lives in Fairfield Beach. His home is not raised above the floodplain, but he was lucky; the water stopped within inches of his front step.

Many of Lee’s neighbors who did sustain significant flood damage are now dealing with a one-two punch — not only do they have to make repairs, but they also have to raise their homes in accordance with new federal regulations. Elevating a structure, including building a new foundation and extending the utilities, costs about $100,000.

“If you’re a person who was retired and living on a fixed income, to rebuild your house and comply with the FEMA regulations is not a possible thing,” Lee said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office has proposed spending about $30 million in federal assistance to help people who suffered storm damage to repair and elevate their homes. In public comments submitted in reaction to the plan, residents said that wasn’t nearly enough.

“Have you seen Milford’s Silver Sands area recently?” wrote Danielle Blumner, referring to her neighborhood. “What had been a vibrant, active, family, year-round community now looks like a combination ghost and shanty town! It’s a disgrace!” Blumner wrote that she is still living in a rental because of storm damage to her own home.

Another Milford resident submitted a handwritten letter. She is on the verge of losing her 650-square-foot home that she has owned for 14 years.

“I do not know how I am going to be able to keep my lovely home,” wrote Deborah Dinan, 50, who said she is a single mother living on disability income. Her flood insurance and a $30,000 federal grant still leave her $40,000 to $50,000 short of what she needs to repair and raise her home.

“I’m asking you to please help me find funding and fight a good fight for people like myself who have worked so hard…and are now being denied money to mandatorily elevate and repair homes,” Dinan wrote.

Accelerated gentrification

Decades ago, few people with means chose to live on the waterfront. Much of Milford’s shoreline housing was occupied by World War II veterans who desperately needed a place to live, said Elizabeth Wright, a retired teacher and historian in Milford, who just opened an art gallery in the town’s Walnut Beach neighborhood.

“After the heydays, after the Depression, the Hurricane of ’38, the areas all were just aging cottages,” Wright said. “So the reputation was that, if you lived along the water, you were poor.”

Elizabeth Wright is the newest gallery owner in a small art district that has developed in Walnut Beach. .

Over several decades, the picture has changed dramatically as the beach became a desirable, and expensive, place to live — and a cash cow for towns’ property tax coffers. Storms like Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene are hastening that gentrification process.

Anyone still around in the Fairfield or Milford coastal neighborhoods can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to repair their homes. Dawn Cobb, who has lived on Fairfield Beach all her life, said she and her husband filed nearly $60,000 in claims from homeowner’s and flood insurance. They got about half of what they asked for and paid the rest themselves.

Farther inland, Gail Bushell has been here 11 years and will be paying about $100,000 out-of-pocket for repairs. That includes new landscaping in the front yard, which would not be covered by any insurance policy.

The house was already raised above the floodplain, Bushell said, so flood damage was minimal.

If a storm like Sandy happens again, she said, “We can afford it financially, but I don’t think we can afford it emotionally.”

Michael Barbaro, a real estate agent in New Haven, said many of his clients who live in modest homes on the shoreline are still waiting for money from insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the meantime, they’re draining their life’s savings to try and stay in their homes — and even then, they will likely be forced out.

“You’re going to see properties just sit there and properties get foreclosed on,” he said. “… And then the people [with more means] will come in.

“They’re going to buy up three or four pieces of property,” Barbaro said, and build a mansion. “They’ll build it above [base flood elevation], they’ll fortify it, and we’ll still have our tax base.”

Fairfield’s chief building official, Jim Gillard, said the town has paid to demolish five homes that were deemed unsafe to live in. A few more will likely have to be torn down if owners don’t make necessary repairs. Those numbers do not include homes that owners paid to demolish. Twenty-seven homes have been elevated since Sandy, Gillard said, and another 20 to 30 are still waiting to be raised.

The numbers are higher in Milford, where 20 percent of waterfront housing was damaged, according to state data. The town’s assistant planner and floodplain manager Emmeline Harrigan said 250 homes were damaged enough during Irene and Sandy that they must also be raised to comply with federal regulations. 

Many of those owners have put their homes on the market or say they’ll walk away, Harrigan said, but she cautioned that it’s too early to tell how many will ultimately do so. “It’s still early on in the finalizing insurance stage to getting the consultants ready to do design to elevate and/or start over,” she said.

But for now, residents are hanging onto the shoreline for dear life. Wright said there’s no way she will be getting flood insurance for her art gallery. A few hundred feet from the beach, it’s in an old building that was never raised above the floodplain. Instead, she has an agreement with the artists who use the gallery. 

“When we know a bad storm is coming, come and get your stuff,” she said. “Or I’ll put it in my car and I’ll take it to some high ground, and we’ll just empty the place out.”

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