On Feb. 1, Bill Zanparelli examines an abandoned car, found during Homeless Census Canvas “Project Opening Door” in Parking lot in Chelsea, MA. The car has broken windows and all windows are cardboarded with 2 flat tires. The volunteers suspect that it must have been used as a shelter by someone who does not have a permanent home.
Bay State ocean waters and insurance rates are rising. Just ask those holding 25,000 federally subsidized coastal flood insurance policies in Massachusetts. These contracts insulate people from the full risks of living on the shore—risks that private insurance companies have long refused to take, making taxpayers assume the burden. Today, due to bigger and more frequent ocean storms, property loss has drowned the national program under $24 billion of debt. Much of this debt mounted post Hurricanes Alex, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy.
To ensure that future flood insurance rates more accurately reflect the risks associated with living in hazardous coastal floodplains, in 2012, Congress experienced a rare moment of clarity and passed comprehensive flood insurance reform.
When the new rate increases took effect, it sparked widespread panic and Congress quickly backpedaled and then hit the snooze button on any serious rate reform. It seems that Congress is more than willing to step into the limelight to rebuild homes and businesses, but not to promote solutions that prevent or minimize property destruction in the first place. One thing is for certain, all this new attention to the risks of coastal living is a wake-up call and we would be wise to pay attention.
For those facing King Neptune’s inevitable onslaught of coastal destruction and havoc, there are options that include moving buildings back from the shore, elevating structures on pilings, renourishing beaches with sediment to strengthen their natural storm buffering capacity, and purchasing properties in harm’s way.
Evidence of completed federal coastal property buyout programs from across the country shows that these types of investments pay for themselves within 10 years by permanently avoiding response, rescue, recovery, and repair costs from future floods. Most importantly, the lives of first responders and residents are spared.
Flooding causes almost half of all disaster-related property destruction in America—and it’s getting worse. A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency study found that sea-level rise will expand the nation’s flood-hazard areas by more than half by 2100, with the number of associated flood-insurance policies increasing by an astounding 130 percent. A growing coastal population exacerbates the problem. The US Census Bureau reports that almost 40 percent of Americans now live in coastal counties. Here at home, according to the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office, 85 percent of Massachusetts’ 6.7 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast.
A 2005 congressionally mandated study found that for every $1 invested in “hazard- mitigation activities,” the national economy saves $4 in losses from future disasters, and saved an additional $3.65 in costs to the US Treasury from avoided disaster-recovery expenditures and lost tax revenues. A bill championed by Senator Mark Pacheco of Taunton, Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture includes coastal buyback simply because it is among the most cost-effective and pragmatic mitigation measures for addressing high-hazard coastal areas. Specifically, a voluntary coastal buy-back program would:
• Invest in high-risk properties in advance of flood disasters;
• Clean up and restore properties to their natural conditions while conserving them for public benefits such as parklands, wildlife refuges, and public beaches ( only one-third of Massachusetts’ 1,500-mile shoreline is open to the public);• Provide storm buffers as repaired coastal resources absorb floodwaters and save uplands from flooding; and
• Capture and store heat-trapping carbon pollution within restored coastal ecosystems, mitigating some of the worst effects of climate change.
A coastal buy-back program would convert vulnerable and dangerous flood-prone properties from liabilities to valuable community assets.
The alternative is to continue pouring money into an undertow of debt on behalf of homeowners who just want out, and taxpayers and an environment just needing relief.
Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon and a recent gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Coastal Erosion Commission.
Juan Vega, of Centro Latino, listens as Zilda Castro tells
about the struggle she had to justify spending the money to
become an American Citizen. Census figures show that legal
permanent residents in Chelsea and all over the country
are not taking the final step towards citizenship. A group of
immigrant advocacy organizations, including Centro, called
for a lowering of the Naturalization fees during a press conference on Broadway last Friday.
The American Dream has always concluded with a resident from another country raising his or her hand and officially transitioning to a naturalized American citizen.
However, more often than not, the American Dream has stopped short of becoming an American, and several local immigrant services organizations – including Centro Latino de Chelsea – are calling on the government to lower naturalization fees to spur more people to take the citizenship step.
“There are 8.5 million legal permanent residents nationwide who are eligible for citizenship and who aren’t doing so,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). “Fees have really increased over the years. In 1995, it was $97 and then $225 in 1998. It is now $680 including biometrics testing. If you look at low-income statistics, it takes two weeks and two days to pay for the Naturalization fees…We strongly believe citizenship and Naturalization are critical to the integration of immigrants and we’re calling for a lowering of these fees.”
U.S. Census figures from the latest American Community Survey (2009-2011) show that permanent residents in Chelsea (those with a so-called Green Card) have abysmal rates of becoming Naturalized Citizens.
Of the city’s total counted population, some 15,474 (45 percent) are foreign-born. Of that group, only 4,006 (25 percent) became Naturalized Citizens, while an astounding 11,741 (75 percent) never took that final step.
Additionally, more than half (51 percent) have been permanent residents for more than 10 years.
Juan Vega, of Centro Latino – who hosted the press conference last Friday morning – said there are a number of reasons why immigrants don’t choose to Naturalize, and certainly the current fee is one big reason.
“There are a number of things that delay people from becoming citizens in our view,” said Vega. “For many, it’s because of not speaking English, general fears people have, or a lack of understanding U.S. history. People need to understand these things are not insurmountable. The fee is not insurmountable either, but it does need revising. A shift needs to be made. A fee is understandable and there needs to be one, but it should be nominal and attainable. It’s to the point now that it’s unreachable for many and it’s only people with means who can achieve it.”
Vega also mentioned that there are hundreds of people across the nation and in Massachusetts who want to become citizens, but put it off because of financial reasons.
That fact is exactly what spawned the press conference and the collaborative effort between Centro Latino, the Irish International Immigrant Center, the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS) and MIRA. They have also allied with the National Partnership for New Americans, which produced a study last month on why more legal permanent residents don’t Naturalize.
One of the major reasons cited in the report was the high fee.
That was a reality explained Friday morning by Zilda Castro, a Brazilian immigrant who has operated a hair salon in Cambridge for many years. However, despite operating a business and living many years in the area, she never chose to become a citizen until 2011.
MAPS Director Paulo Pinto said Castro had to be convinced that the money was worth spending.
“Zilda was one of those people who had to be convinced it was worth spending the money because it is expensive,” he said. “When she saw all the benefits, she agreed after a long time contemplating it.”
Said Castro, “I finally feel like I’m home. I’ve been in business for a long time and I have wanted to be an American Citizen for a long time. It’s been the best decision of my life.”
And that’s what the group of organizations – also knowns as the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative – hopes more permanent residents will see, especially with a lower fee.