After a project to convert a dilapidated former waterworks building in Bangor into affordable housing was completed more than a dozen years ago, it was celebrated as a success for helping to address Bangor’s affordable housing needs and for preserving historic buildings.
But in the years since, with low-income adults at high risk for homelessness now living in the Bangor Waterworks Apartments’ 35 riverfront efficiency units, another problem at the site has come to light: it faces a growing threat of flooding due to climate change.
Rising sea levels caused by overall warming temperatures and stronger and wetter storms are making coastal areas around the world more vulnerable to floods. Affordable housing sites that are projected to become more prone to such flooding can be found in six counties in Maine — Cumberland, Knox, Penobscot, Sagadahoc, Washington and York, according to an analysis by Climate Central, a not-for-profit science and journalism organization. Nearly 50 affordable housing units in those counties are projected to be vulnerable to annual coastal flooding by the end of this decade, with that number quadrupling by the end of the century.
Nationally, there are more than 7,500 affordable housing units that are vulnerable to annual flooding, and the problem is expected to get worse, according to Climate Central. By 2050, if nothing is done to curb the rate of global carbon emissions that is fueling climate change, that number is expected to more than triple to roughly 24,500 units.
This vulnerability is exacerbating a national shortage of housing that either is federally subsidized or offered at below-market rates to qualified renters, according to housing experts. There are only an estimated 35 affordable housing rental units available for every 100 renters with the lowest incomes, making a nationwide backlog of more than 7 million needed units.
“We’re not building enough housing to meet the demand,” Todd Nedwick of the National Housing Trust said, adding that he was not surprised affordable housing often is found in potentially flood-prone areas that other developers avoid.
The former Bangor waterworks complex on State Street, part of which juts out into the Penobscot River, is among the most exposed in Maine for the number of residential units that could be affected by a flood, according to Climate Central.
Last week, the monthly astronomical high tide for Bangor’s waterfront crested at more than 16 feet above mean low tide, without the influences of heavy rain or storm surge. At that height, the river’s water level came within roughly 10 feet of the windows on the waterworks building’s residential wing that juts out into the river.
Ron Bernard, 54, has lived at the waterworks building through the past two winters and said he hasn’t worried that the river will flood the building. He said he is most aware in the colder months of the river flowing through the sluiceways under the wing where he lives, when he hears the ice moving around outside his window.
“It creaks and groans every time the tide comes and goes,” Bernard said.
Brian Larsen, 62, who moved into the former Bangor waterworks building in 2013, said there have not been any flooding issues at the site that he’s been aware of since he’s lived there.
From February into April, when water starts flowing more heavily downstream and often there still is ice in the river, tends to be when the high tides come closest to the base of the building, Larsen said. This past winter was mild, so there wasn’t a lot of runoff from melting snow, but in prior years the higher water levels have been noticeable, he said.
“Four or five years ago, it was pretty high in the spring,” he said.
There have been occasional water problems inside the building and in the parking lot, but they are not believed to be river-related, according to people at the property who did not want to be identified. Some pipes have frozen in the winter in the wing that extends out over the river and have caused water to overflow, both into a hallway and into a ceiling where it damaged some ceiling tiles, they said. Clogged storm drains in the winter are suspected of having caused minor flooding in the parking lot.
The Caleb Group, a not-for-profit firm based in Swampscott, Massachusetts, acquired the waterworks housing property in 2019, according to documents filed at the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds. Caleb Group owns nearly 30 housing sites in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. More than half of them are in Maine, including Bangor properties Bradford Commons, Kenduskeag Terrace, Valley View and The Willows.
None of The Caleb Group’s other housing projects in Bangor have been identified by Climate Central as being at risk from flooding due to climate change. Marianne McDermott, spokesperson for Caleb Group, said there have been no weather-related floods at the waterworks property since the organization acquired it two years ago.
The building was built intentionally next to the river nearly 150 years ago, so the city could draw water from the river for its residents, and Caleb Group’s interest in acquiring the building was to preserve the property’s affordable housing designation, McDermott said. Had it been sold to a for-profit company, she said, the tenants living there most likely would have had to move out and search for scarce affordable housing elsewhere.
The firm has been keeping tabs on the potential for climate change to impact its tenants and properties, McDermott said. If something were to happen at the waterworks complex that compromised the health and safety of its residents, Caleb Group would help find temporary accommodations for them until they could move back into the building, she said.
The flooding potential at the Bangor waterworks complex has not been amplified just by heavier rains. The housing project, which is about a mile and a half east of downtown Bangor, sits along the uppermost tidal portion of the Penobscot River and is susceptible to sea level rise and to storm surge that could swell upriver from Penobscot Bay. In late winter and early spring, the combination of rainfall, melting snow and drainage blocked by ice jams often contributes to flooding in Maine riverfront communities.
The 1976 Groundhog Day storm in Bangor submerged parking lots next to Kenduskeag Stream in 12 feet of water. A repeat of the storm is not that far-fetched, especially as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, according to Andrew Pershing, former chief scientific officer at Gulf of Maine Research Institute and now director of climate science for Climate Central. A storm surge of a few feet in Penobscot Bay would get amplified into a higher surge as winds and tide funnel the water further into the bay and up the river, he said.
“It raised water by 12 feet, and it did it in a fairly short period of time,” Pershing said of the 1976 flood. “If you push the water into the bay, it magnifies the water level [upstream].”
The storm surge along the coast during the 1976 flood measured between 3 and 5 feet, according to an analysis by the National Weather Service. Strong winds, an astronomical high tide and heavy rains all contributed to the deeper deluge in Bangor.
“The funneling effects of the Penobscot Bay and river allowed the surge to move up the river and grow as it headed toward the city of Bangor,” the weather service said, adding that the storm that caused the flood was not a hurricane. Storm surge models that have been developed in the 45 years since indicate that Bangor and adjacent communities “face the greatest threat of surges” along the entire Maine coast, according to the weather service.
John Theriault, Bangor’s staff engineer for more than six years, was not involved in the waterworks renovation project, in which Shaw House Development acquired the abandoned building from the city as part of an agreement to convert it into needed affordable housing. He said the records at City Hall show that when the building was renovated, the elevation of the main floor was raised by roughly a foot to reduce the possibility of flood damage.
Theriault said the city has no records of any floods having occurred at the waterworks property since it was converted to housing, but that the potential for recurring floods downtown or along waterways is something the city has taken steps to address.
The city requires developers to obtain a flood hazard development permit when they build in flood-prone areas, and they must install equipment designed to prevent infiltration into buildings when putting in electrical, plumbing, heating and other systems, according to the city’s floodplain management code. All new or replacement water supply systems must minimize or prevent water infiltration, and when the city repairs or improves streets in those areas, it puts in larger culverts and storm drains to handle the increased runoff.
The Coast Guard helps to reduce the threat of floods in Bangor when it breaks up ice in the river that could slow the flow of water downstream, Theriault said. Still, the city blocks off parking along Kenduskeag Stream “a couple of times of year” when flooding conditions are expected, he said.
“It’s not rare when that happens,” Theriault said. “I don’t think things are going to get better.”