MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As part of NPR's investigation into inequities in federal disaster aid, we are visiting Bound Brook, N.J. It has a new taxpayer-funded flood control system designed to protect the town from major flooding. That is attracting developers and could make a big difference for the people who live and work there. But as NPR's Robert Benincasa reports, it could also make the town unaffordable for low-income residents.
ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: One way to understand the immense flood control system built around Bound Brook is to climb to the top of it.
So we're walking up a big, grassy berm here. This is, like, how - this is, like, maybe almost straight up, right?
ABEL GOMEZ: Yeah.
BENINCASA: From the top of the hill, town councilman Abel Gomez and I can see water through the trees on the other side. It's just one of several smaller bodies of water plus the Raritan River, that flank Bound Brook.
And there's what - what body of water?
GOMEZ: And this is actually the Bound Brook. So the town is actually called Bound Brook because it's bound by brooks. There's brooks throughout all the perimeters of the town, and then there's a brook that runs right through the middle of the town.
BENINCASA: The hill we climbed is no ordinary slope. It's a flood levee. It's part of this town's defense against climate change, which has been making New Jersey warmer and wetter. The levees, along with a system of gates and pumps, are supposed to protect Bound Brook and other nearby towns from the kind of flood that ripped through here in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd. And ever since then, businesses have been wary of coming here knowing they could lose everything in a major storm.
GOMEZ: Without flood control, it was only the next natural disaster before you were wiped out.
BENINCASA: But 20 years later, if there were a climate change lottery with public funding as the prize, you could say Bound Brook hit the jackpot - a sweeping $650 million flood control project whose local portion was completed in 2016. Now developers are betting tens of millions of dollars that new apartments, restaurants and other amenities just over an hour by train from Manhattan will attract new residents to this town of 10,000.
In a ride around town, councilman Abel Gomez showed me old industrial properties that will be torn down for hundreds of new luxury apartments and restaurants. But the town's own research suggests the newer apartments may be too pricey for some in the Latino community who make up about half of Bound Brook's population. A local analysis found that those in the most heavily Latino neighborhoods had the lowest incomes and the highest housing costs as a percentage of income.
How does the Latino community figure into these plans?
GOMEZ: We hope - we really, really hope that the Latino identity that's here remains here, in fact, becomes part of that future vision of this town because that's key to this. It sets us apart.
BENINCASA: Francisco Morales Mora, who emigrated to Bound Brook from Costa Rica in the 1990s, owns a Central American restaurant downtown. He says more development will be good for business and will make the town more vibrant. But he worries about affordability.
FRANCISCO MORALES MORA: (Through interpreter) The new apartments that are already here, the ones that are already built - they're too expensive for the people of Bound Brook. The people of Bound Brook are poor. And unless the new ones are cheaper, people will leave.
BENINCASA: Morales' concerns aren't new. In 2004, the Justice Department sued the town, saying its housing policies discriminated against Latinos. And for years, Bound Brook's housing and development practices were regulated by a consent decree. But if Bound Brook's safer status with the flood control system ends up favoring the wealthy and leads to gentrification, that wasn't the project's intent, says Robert Greco, the project's manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
ROBERT GRECO: We're protecting a highly dense area. Those are not what you would consider wealthy neighborhoods.
BENINCASA: Well, at least they're not wealthy now. And Greco acknowledges with some pride that his project is changing the town.
GRECO: They're really bringing the area up, so to speak. There's businesses that are coming in. There's a lot of reconstruction work. And it's beautiful, actually.
BENINCASA: Beautiful or not, the pricing out of some current residents may be already underway. Those new apartments Morales mentioned - some one-bedroom units rent for over $1,600 a month. That's $200 more than the town's median rent. But as a place adapting to climate change, Bound Brook is hoping to fend off the floods. And in 2011, the partially completed flood control system stood up to Hurricane Irene. Robert Benincasa, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.