Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Planning Tools for Housing

City governments are increasingly paying special attention to the resilience needs of the affordable housing community within their broader adaptation strategies. Many cities already provide important information, including future climate hazard data and information on populations at greatest risk. This information can help owners and developers of affordable housing protect their assets. By developing specific assessment tools to determine the probability that a climate hazard may occur — in conjunction with evaluating the adaptive capacity of at-risk populations — cities can enable property owners and developers to better prioritize resilience strategies to protect residents, buildings, and communities from extreme weather.

Risk Assessments and Vulnerability Studies

Risk assessments and vulnerability studies can be used to map a community’s specific climate hazards and related impacts on the affordable housing stock as well as evaluate the ability of its residents to adapt to and recover from those very hazards. They can also be used strategically to redirect resources to better support affordable housing. For example, studies can help identify the number of affordable housing developments in the floodplains designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the common deficiencies that put them at risk so that cities can be more competitive when applying for flood mitigation funding. Cities can also partner with their local housing authority to integrate climate change scenarios into their facility assessments to identify properties at greatest risk for flooding.

Risk assessments, which measure the probability of specific hazards under future climate scenarios, include identification of both primary hazards (e.g., coastal or inland flooding, stormwater, extreme temperatures, major thunderstorms) and secondary hazards that accompany them (e.g., disease, toxin exposure, power and water outage). Data sources include local government plans (e.g., Climate Ready DC)See footnote 1 that assess and identify strategies to prepare built infrastructure and community resources for the impacts of climate change, as well as web-based tools like the Massachusetts Climate Change Clearinghouse (“resilient MA”),See footnote 2 which aggregates scientific data and identifies vulnerabilities across different sectors (e.g., agriculture, transportation, public health, emergency management, natural resources).

Results of the risk assessments can be integrated into vulnerability studies, which evaluate a community’s sensitivity to identified risks, for example, its ability to adapt to and recover from hazards like extreme heat or inland flooding. Vulnerability studies may include analysis of the building type, function, and population; interviews with owners and property managers; and individual site visits and assessments. For example, to determine the vulnerability of a multifamily unit to stormwater flooding, questions may include whether:

  • the building is located in a flood zone;
  • the property has a history of sewer or stormwater backups during heavy rain or flooding; and
  • there is an emergency management plan for both residents and building staff.

Design Guidelines

Design guidelines, like those developed by the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. (Enterprise) in “Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience,” provide strategies for retrofitting affordable housing buildings to protect them against climate hazards.See footnote 3 Resilience strategies vary from improvements like floodproofing buildings and installing pumps to measures that can increase energy efficiency and stormwater management. Guideline manuals can also provide strategies to enhance backup measures that provide critical services like access to potable water and emergency lighting when a building loses power. Guidelines could also provide strategies for building community resilience such as measures to strengthen community ties and expanding community spaces.

Considerations of Planning Tools for Resilient Affordable Housing


  • Planning tools can identify community economic assets like small businesses, for which disruptions in the event of a disaster may lead to far-reaching impacts for local residents and the workforce.
  • Planning tools could be used to evaluate the economic viability and community benefits of resilience upgrades, for example installing solar-plus-battery storage systems.
  • Planning tools can incorporate potential funding and financing mechanisms to support resilience measures like building retrofits, as well as measures to prevent displacement of low-income residents by providing resources to recover after a disaster.


  • Risk assessments are helpful for not only identifying existing environmental conditions that can exacerbate climate change impacts (e.g., impervious pavements that do not allow water to seep through), but also potential solutions (e.g., installing green stormwater infrastructure to capture runoff and alleviate flooding).


  • Planning tools provide an opportunity to solicit input from a diverse coalition of community stakeholders, who can identify the needs of frontline communities before climate disruptions take place.
  • The process of developing planning tools presents an opportunity to provide community partners with information about climate hazards before they occur, and to disseminate the information to impacted residents.


  • Risk assessments and vulnerability studies can be conducted by building owners, property managers, architects, engineers, and other professionals.
  • Risk assessments and vulnerability studies are often voluntary in nature, and property owners may require additional incentives to implement them.
  • Cities can develop planning tools in coordination with local organizations that have deep ties to the residents who live in affordable housing, and who have knowledge of the community’s needs and assets.


  • Risk assessments, vulnerability studies, and design guidelines do not require legal authorization to develop. However, implementing certain guidelines and recommendations (e.g., zoning changes) may require additional regulatory and legal action.

 Lessons Learned

  • To achieve more widespread voluntary action, affordable housing stakeholders and cities should collaborate to find funding, support training, and/or develop additional resources that respond to common challenges (e.g., the need for cost-benefit analyses, finding qualified contractors).
  • Assigning one party to oversee the completion of all components of a risk assessment and/or vulnerability study could help streamline the development of multiple evaluation criteria.
  • Incorporating flood insurance counseling into existing housing counseling and legal services programs could improve access to information about flood risk for renters and lower-income homeowners, as well as guide them through recommendations for making their homes more resilient.



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