When Hurricane Ida hit New Jersey on Sept.1, four units in Christine Catalano’s U-shaped apartment complex were immediately damaged. Three cars were also totaled.
“A rock wall behind one of the buildings collapsed after the heavy rains and shifted the foundation of the building,” says Catalano, 42. “People from those units had to leave the next day but everyone else was told that we were safe. We didn't have to leave.”
Six weeks later, the remaining 40 tenants in the West Orange, New Jersey, complex, including Catalano, were asked to evacuate their apartments after the town received an engineering report from the landlord’s insurance company, saying the building's foundation was unsafe. And now the displaced tenants have been told the building will be torn down, leaving most scrambling for a new place to live.
“The rents down here are astronomical,” she says. “It is extremely out of my range.”
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As of October of this year, the U.S. has experienced 18 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each. These events have included one drought, two floods, nine severe storms, four tropical cyclones, one wildfire and one winter storm, according to the National Climate Data Center.
When it comes to tenants’ rights in the face of natural disasters, such as floods, storms, earthquakes, or wildfire, there is not much protection beyond getting the security deposit back and the ability to break the lease if the dwelling is deemed uninhabitable, say experts.
In a 2018 study, sociologists Junia Howell and James Elliott found that most post-disaster recovery efforts are geared toward property owners which exacerbates wealth inequality.
For instance, the National Flood Insurance Program insures 5 million policyholders claiming more than $1 trillion in coverage on properties that would otherwise go mostly uninsured, the authors say.
While property owners may gain access to low-interest loans through public disaster recovery efforts and receive insurance payouts, renters are often forced to make expensive moves to higher-priced apartments.
'The children were exhausted and emotional'
That was the case with Catalano, who was paying $1,600 for a two-bedroom apartment she shared with her children and two dogs.
She first had to leave her building when a report deemed its foundation unsafe and cautioned it could result in “possible loss of life.”
“It was late night when they knocked at our door. I took my children's clothes and book bags for school. I took dog food, and the children’s lunchboxes,” says Catalano, a single mother of two young girls. “I had four bags with me. The children were exhausted and emotional.”
Later, the displaced tenants were told by the landlord’s lawyer that the building will be demolished. They had until Dec. 1 to collect any of their remaining belongings.
By the beginning of November, less than one month after the evacuation, the town had spent more than $200,000 putting up the tenants in local hotels, Joseph Fagan, a spokesperson for the township told USA TODAY.
"That's a conservative estimate," he says.
On Nov. 8, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi wrote in a letter to the displaced tenants that the township, “having limited resources,” cannot provide hotel assistance beyond Dec. 4.
Catalano says finding a new home has been a struggle.
Catalano, who has lived in hercomplex for more than 26 years, says every apartment she’s seen in town so far that would allow pets is between $2,300 and $2,600 a month.
She says she doesn’t want to move away from the town and look for new schools in the middle of the school year.
“My younger daughter has special needs and she loves her current school,” she says. “This is the first time she's had in-person classes five days a week in a long time."
Flood disclosure laws vary
Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, an advocacy group that works to strengthen homes against natural and human-made disasters, points to another area where renters are at a disadvantage.
“We are not aware of any state-level renter flood disclosure requirement,” she says. “But there are a growing number of states that require homebuyer disclosures.”
Even when it comes to homebuyers, flood disclosure laws vary from state to state.
Only 29 states have regulatory requirements that a seller disclose a property’s history of flood damages to a buyer, according to the Flood Disclosure Scorecard put out by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The disclosures are accelerating because of a variety of factors, beginning with the availability of data and additionally, the increasing awareness of climate risks like sea-level rise, increased rainfall, rapidly intensifying hurricanes,” says Chapman-Henderson.
A standard renters' insurance policy typically doesn't cover flood damage. While a landlord may have flood insurance to cover the building, their insurance will not cover a tenant’s personal belongings.
Renters can buy a policy from the National Flood Insurance Program to cover their personal belongings up to $100,000, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In Catalano’s case, even though she had a renter’s insurance policy, it did not cover her hotel stay as her apartment itself was not damaged, she says.
Catalano and other tenants received their security deposit, rent for October and an additional $1,250 for relocation costs from the landlord.
Steven Eisenstein, the lawyer representing the landlord, did not return calls seeking comment on whether their insurance could cover the tenant’s hotel stays.
Landlord/tenant rules are a mixed bag
Just like flood disclosure requirements, landlord-tenant laws vary widely across the country. When asked why the township had taken up the responsibility of paying the hotel bills with taxpayer dollars and why the landlord’s insurance company was not required to foot part of the bill, Fagan said he couldn’t speak for the landlord.
“This was a life-changing event for our residents. The township of West Orange likely exceeded its responsibility to the residents in doing so (providing hotel accommodation to residents),” he says. “When it started out, the immediate concern was to find housing for the residents in the local hotels.”
Initially, the cost of the hotel stays was being paid out of the Mayor’s Sunshine Fund, a charitable fund made up of private donations. But that fund was quickly exhausted.
Within less than a month, the town had spent $200,000 from its budget.
“This is only my opinion,” says Fagan. “I think that the township residents, as much as they want to be charitable and helping their fellow residents that ... cannot go on indefinitely, in terms of the taxpayers' funding.”
The township is helping tenants apply for assistance from FEMA, he said.
Thirty of the tenants, including Catalano, meanwhile, have hired a pair of lawyers to investigate the cause of the rockslide and are considering a possible lawsuit against the town, the landlord and a private school, Seton Hall Prep.
The school, whose athletic turf fields are perched above the complex, was completed in 2017 after chopping down 1,000 trees, which could have increased the flow of stormwater runoff to the complex, says Thomas Cataldo, a lawyer for the tenants.
Catalano is hoping the town will extend her hotel stay until Dec.18, when she can move into a relative’s apartment.
The town, on Thursday, agreed to let her stay until Tuesday.
“I appreciate what the town has done for us,” says Catalano. “It’s very hard with the holiday season. We would have a Christmas tree up by now. I would be shopping for Christmas presents. I haven't done any of that. I don't sleep at night because everything's on my mind, you know. I worry because I have two kids to think about.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Renters rights are few as climate change exacerbates income inequality