Can New York City upgrade its aging infrastructure while ensuring it is resilient enough to withstand the next major weather event? That is one of the questions that was considered by a panel of experts at a panel discussion on buildings and housing infrastructure hosted by City & State on Thursday. 

The members of the panel, which included a diverse mix of former and current city officials, as well as a representative from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), each gave a different perspective on how to cope with the looming threat of climate change, which can lead to major storms like Hurricane Sandy occurring more frequently.

Shola Olatoye, the newly appointed chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority, painted a picture of the challenges that the agency faces even now, 20 months out from Sandy. Olatoye said that Sandy damaged 30,000 of the authority's 179,000 total housing units, and admitted that NYCHA's response was "less than optimal." She added that valuable lessons were learned from the lackluster recovery, and with the help of HUD the agency is already beginning to make changes to improve resiliency in its facilities.

"There was about $1.8 billion in damage to the housing authority. We’re in the process of recovering that, and we’re also designing the scopes of services to do that work beginning this summer," Olatoye said. "For those developments that have the temporary mobile boilers, we’ll actually, beginning later this fall, be replacing them with, still mobile boilers, but more efificent natural gas boilers so those can be more reliable sources of heat and energy for those developments."

From a federal perspective, Holly Leicht, HUD's New York State regional administrator, said that the challenge has been changing the mindset when it comes to thinking about how federal aid is distributed. Leicht said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is normally very narrow about how its aid money is used, but that HUD has come up with ways to utilize the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Response money that it has at its disposal to further the city's resiliency goals.

"There is a mindset that’s shifting and one of the ways that HUD got out in front of that was requiring that some of the CDBG-DR money be used for resiliency," Leicht said. "FEMA’s M.O. has been, 'We give you just enough money to rebuild what was there before.' That is their mandate...If that’s the only amount of money you can give, then we’ve got to figure out how we can layer other sources of funding on top of that in order to make it more resilient and build smarter next time."

Looking big picture, Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president at RXR Realty and the former president of the city's Economic Development Corporation, said that while Sandy was an unspeakable tragedy, many areas of the city got extremely lucky, highlighting the fact that the city needs to take a holistic, comprehensive approach when thinking about preparing for climate change. Pinsky added that storms are not the only byproducts of climate change that could greatly affect New Yorkers, naming drought and major heat waves as other potential threats. 

"We need to be comprehensive when we think about the concept of climate change, and we need to be comprehensive when we think about the concept of resiliency, and we have to make sure that we’re making the investments today, because these changes are coming," Pinsky said. "They’re coming quickly and they're going to be very, very serious. And if we don’t start spending today, we’re going to fall farther and farther behind and it’s going to be impossible for us to ever catch up."