NY Law Would Require Landlord Disclosures of Flooding History

Raisa Brown spent one night last September wondering how much the water would rise up to her platform bed. Brown, 32, and her fiancé — with their 3-year-old son in tow — considered using a mop and Swiffer to row away.

Source: Observer Dispatch | Published on July 13, 2022

Flooding in the kitchen and livingroom

The remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded Brown's first-floor home in Mamaroneck, with flood water seeping from the front and back doors, and through the floorboards above a basement. The two-bedroom house she rents sits a few steps above the street.

Her family had just moved in May 2021 to the village's Flats neighborhood, a low-lying community that has experienced increasingly severe flooding over several decades.

Brown didn't know that. Had she, she would have rented elsewhere.

"People need an option," Brown said. "They need to have their own choices. They need to know what they're getting into. It's pretty straightforward: I wasn't informed. This is where I ended up."

A new Westchester County law is leading the way in New York to prevent what happened to Brown's family by having landlords disclose a history of flooding to their properties. It intends to warn tenants of flooding to a unit before they sign a lease, and it provides a legal recourse if landlords don't disclose prior flood damage. State lawmakers may soon follow suit alongside other states that have faced increasingly devastating floods.

The state bill requires landlords to provide information about flood risk and history, along with information about flood insurance, for residential leases. It's awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul's signature.

As climate change is projected to increase floods due to more frequent and severe storms, the local law and state bill intend to help residents make more informed decisions that could save a family thousands of dollars in damages, not to mention loss of life after nearly a dozen people died inside basement apartments in New York City during Ida.

"We need this type of legislation to really protect people and make sure they really understand these floods really are life-threatening," said Westchester County Legislator Catherine Parker, who authored the Westchester law and whose district includes the Flats in Mamaroneck. "They have to take this seriously as they make decisions about where their families should live."

How will local law, state bill protect tenants?

The Flats, formally known as Washingtonville, is where most affordable housing is concentrated in Mamaroneck. Brown could easily take the Metro-North train to her job as a behavioral health technician. She had plans for her son to attend local schools.

Ida displaced hundreds of families in the Flats, including Brown's. Her family stayed atop their bed that night, though they lost their clothes, furniture, a motorcycle and two cars.

The county law takes effect Aug. 15. It provides renters with a form as part of their lease that discloses the history of flooding for residential or commercial properties dating back 10 years.

Flooding, she added, is an environmental justice issue for lower income communities. Often, people of color or immigrants have few housing choices other than units or buildings that may be flood-prone.

"In many of our communities, the people that have the least amount of resources for housing are often the ones that are taking apartments that are basement level, or potentially those are the least expensive," she said. "They may not realize that the apartment is the least expensive because it, every now and again, can flood."

When signing the lease, under local law, landlords and tenants would complete a disclosure form that includes details of flooding. If landlords don't disclose flood history, tenants can take landlords to court for damages they incurred due to flooding.

NY could revamp laws after nationwide flood events

Currently, New York state requires little disclosure for flood risk, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that tracks laws around the U.S.

State law only requires sellers to disclose whether a property sits within a floodplain, and if any flooding produced standing water on the property. Sellers often bypass this through a $500 credit to the buyer.

Joel Scata, a senior attorney at the NRDC, called New York's existing law a "loophole."

"It's almost as if they have no disclosure at all," he said.

That may soon change — at least for renters — under a statewide bill, introduced by Assemblymember Robert Carroll, D-Brooklyn, that aims to make millions of New Yorkers more aware of flood risks to apartments. If signed by Hochul, it would make New York the eighth state to pass disclosure laws for renters, Scata said. A spokesperson for Hochul said she will review the legislation.

Several states along the Gulf of Mexico have enacted similar laws to address severe weather events.

For example, a Texas law, effective in January, requires landlords to disclose whether their rental property is in a 100-year floodplain, or if it flooded in the last five years. After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in 2017, Texas also passed a law related to disclosures for homebuyers.

"We're lucky that we don't have as many of those events as other states," Carroll said. "But with climate change, New York is getting more of those."

However, the difference between the state proposal and local law may cause some confusion for New York landlords, according to Tim Foley, CEO of the Building and Realty Institute of Westchester and Mid-Hudson Region, a trade association for property owners.

"Unfortunately, it's another government bureaucracy problem," Foley said. "In terms of timing, I'm not sure why it needed to happen before they knew what the state was going to do. I sincerely hope that they attempt to correct it in the event that the state law's passed, so that the two ordinances will be in compliance with each other."

In its unanimous passage by the Westchester Board of Legislators on June 27, Parker said the local law differed from the state proposal in that, if landlords aren't transparent in disclosing flood history, it explicitly allows tenants to take them to court for damages due to flooding. Carroll said his state proposal provides a course for civil lawsuits.

Additionally, the state bill attaches a more narrow disclosure of flooding, noting whether it happened in apartments within floodplains or hazard areas and if the building experienced damage, Parker added. The county law is more inclusive in the amount and type of flooding.

Both the local law and state bill apply to new leases. Neither apply to homebuyers.

"People who will be making possibly one of the biggest investments of their life in a property should have the ability to know what that property faces in terms of flood risk," Scata said. "New York really needs to move forward by removing that loophole."

Ida's aftermath

In Mamaroneck, the Community Resource Center, a nonprofit organization based in the Flats, saw dozens of families, many immigrants, displaced for months after Ida.The center still hears of people living in basement apartments despite the flooding, said Janet Fry, the center's director of advocacy.

The new county law gives some peace of mind when the next flood happens.

"Within knowing where they will live," she said, "they will take different measures as to how they should protect themselves. Or maybe just take proactive steps when they hear a storm coming."

In the weeks after Ida forced Brown from her Flats home, she awoke at 3 a.m. to look for the next best deal on hotel rooms.

For holidays or birthdays, she normally liked to invite friends and family over. She didn't want her family to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas in a hotel.

Two months later, in November, the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped with the deposit and first month's rent on her family's new second-floor apartment in West Harrison.

The apartment is too cramped for gatherings, unlike her old Mamaroneck home, which had a patio and backyard.

But at least she knows it's not in a flood zone − a condition FEMA required for her to rent the apartment.

"I still haven't recovered what I lost," she said. "But, I mean, something beats nothing."