Illustration by Jennifer Chavez for Borderless Magazine

This story was originally published by Borderless Magazine. Sign up for their weekly newsletter to learn the latest about the Midwest’s immigrant communities.”

This story is part of a collaborative series, from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless Magazine and four other news partners, examining climate resilience across the Great Lakes. This reporting was made possible with support from the Joyce Foundation.

Daniela* was relieved when she finally got an apartment on the North Side of Chicago in 2017. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she had been homeless for two years, and had worked with a case manager from a mental health nonprofit for a long time to find a landlord that would accept her Section 8 housing vouchers.

But when her basement apartment started regularly flooding, her dream home suddenly became a nightmare. Almost every time it rained, she was up to her knees in water.

“I had to use buckets to throw the water out of my apartment,” said Daniela.

With warming temperatures due to climate change, Chicago has experienced more frequent and severe storms in recent decades, leaving Chicagoans at increased risk of flooding. A 2019 study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that Chicago ranked high in total federal payouts and loans to address flooding and flood damage. Despite Chicago’s inland status, the area’s spending was surpassed only by coastal regions that regularly experience hurricanes.

Chicagoans who live in basement apartments, like Daniela, are particularly at risk of losing their valuables and having health issues due to flooding. Basement apartments, which are not always legal, are popular options for lower income residents and people from immigrant communities in Chicago.

“We consider our city to be a sanctuary city, but at the same time, a lot of the living conditions don’t hold up,” Daniela said.

Now, Chicago aldermen and housing advocates are working to change laws to protect these vulnerable residents.

As climate change intensifies, existing infrastructure in Chicago is being taxed beyond the limits of what it was originally designed to handle. Not just rainfall, but increased precipitation in the form of storms, snowfall and lake-related flooding will continue to pose a threat to people’s homes.

While flooding has increasingly been a problem for Chicagoans for several decades now, this September’s supercell storm made the dangers of flooding very apparent.

A supercell storm is a unique kind of thunderstorm which can persist for hours and cause extreme conditions like flash flooding and 100 mph winds. These storms are the precursors to tornadoes, and climate change is increasing the chances that weather events like September’s storm can occur.

Chicago’s September storm flooded streets, caused sewers to back up and manhole covers to blow off of their positioned spots. After the city received nearly 5 inches of rain in a matter of hours, 2,500 residents in the North Side neighborhoods of Portage Park, Edgewater, Rogers Park, West Ridge and Albany Park reported basement flooding. The storm’s impact lasted far longer than the initial downpour, straining resources and creating problems in these communities.

Carina Hoyer, who lives in a rowhouse in Albany Park, said the rate at which the flooding happened was unlike anything she’d seen before.

“The water was coming out of our floor drains so fast, it was like, we just walked back upstairs. There was literally nothing that we possibly could have done to even slow down or mitigate [the flooding] at that point, it was just chaos,” said Hoyer.

Adding to the challenge of flooding, the neighborhoods hit by September’s storm are home to large populations of immigrants and non-English speaking residents. In Albany Park, for example, 60% of residents do not speak English at home, making receiving information about the danger of flooding and what to do afterwards more difficult.

Immigrants in Chicago and beyond who continually have issues trying to secure and keep long-term housing tend to be drawn to basement apartments because they are less expensive and usually have landlords who have minimal requirements to rent the apartments.

“Generally the housing situation in Chicago is difficult. Immigrants especially face a difficult time because they lack the credit history to be able to choose what housing situation suits them most, added on top are the issues related to price and availability,” said Maya Atassi, director of operations at the Syrian Community Network, which helps newly arrived immigrants and refugees find housing.

Often, the number of people living in basement apartments is well above any occupancy limits, but apartments like these are part of a larger informal housing market that spans numerous large cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. In each case, most of these arrangements are utilized by immigrants with few affordable choices for housing who are forced to make due.

“[Basement apartments] tend to be focused in areas that have a high number of immigrants whether they be from Asia or Latin America or other countries,” said Laura Garcia from the Metropolitan Tenant Organization. Outside of Chicago, an NBC News report found that nearly all of the people who died in basements after Hurricane Ida were Asian immigrants to the U.S.

Garcia’s organization fields calls from residents who are having trouble with their housing and says that flooding “is a constant issue, even before the supercell.”

“We do get calls about basements flooding [or] their sewage backup,” Garcia said. “When there’s severe snowfall, sometimes that water will come in right into the unit as it’s melting.”

Flooding isn’t just a hazard when water first enters the apartment. In the aftermath of a storm, one of the most common hazards that pops up after flooding is mold, according to Emma Anselin, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Not only is the presence of mold problematic, but many people may be allergic to mold and not even realize it. Mold has been linked to increased chances of asthma developing in children and can agitate existing respiratory issues.

“After flooding, when there’s water damage to the home, and then mold grows on top of that water damage, [people] may notice chronic cough and congestion and difficulty breathing [and] headaches, all because they’re allergic,” said Anselin.

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