Has Climate Gentrification Hit Miami? The City Plans to Find Out.

As the sea rises, low-income neighborhoods on high land are starting to feel squeezed out.
People protest the displacement of store owners in a strip mall in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami after the property owner sold to a developer.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Liberty City, Florida, feels a world apart from the glitzy beaches, posh boutiques, and multimillion-dollar residences of Miami Beach, though it’s only four miles away as the pelican flies. You may recognize this community from the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. Here, the streets thrum to the beat of Miami bass, the aroma of Haitian griot and banan peze (fried pork and plantains) wafts out from the area’s restaurants, and homes are painted in bright hues that speak of their owners’ Caribbean roots. According to longtime residents, though, the character of the neighborhood is changing as wealthier Miamians move in.

“The place just don’t feel like home anymore,” says Valencia Gunder, a community strategist who was born and raised in Liberty City. “And I believe climate change has everything to do with it—because the people who are moving here would never have stepped over here before.”

The mood is similar in Little Haiti, Little Havana, Overtown, and Allapattah. Segregation shunted people of color to these less desirable, landlocked neighborhoods around the turn of the last century. These communities perch atop Miami Rock Ridge, an elevated stretch of land extending like an alligator’s spine from the northern tip of Miami-Dade County down to the Florida Keys. And this higher ground may now be driving up real estate prices.

Much of the city sits just six feet above sea level, and many neighborhoods are vulnerable to the expected sea level rise of 14 to 34 inches by 2060. Former Florida senator Bill Nelson has called the city “ground zero” for climate change. Meanwhile, at higher elevations, many of the residents of Liberty City and other underserved black and Latino communities say they feel pressure from real estate developers to sell their homes. The phenomenon is being called climate gentrification, and this year Miami is undertaking a study to better understand what’s happening.

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Miami is the second-fastest growing big city in the country. So even without the threats of sea level rise and more intense hurricanes and storm surges, it would be experiencing development pressure, says Jane Gilbert, the chief resilience officer for the city. That said, a 2018 Harvard University study shows that real estate at higher elevations in Miami-Dade is appreciating at a faster rate than elsewhere in the county. Gilbert says that research, along with the anecdotal evidence pouring in from residents, helped inspire the city’s study. If climate gentrification is happening, Miami wants to get out in front of it.

The city will kick off the study by gathering data on rates of property turnover, increases in land values, purchases by companies, building permits, and opportunity zones to help pinpoint the high-lying neighborhoods experiencing the most development pressure.

The second step is identifying what policies exist (or are needed) to help renters and homeowners stay put if they wish to. One move in the right direction is the Miami Forever bond, which dedicates $400 million to addressing sea level rise through improving seawalls, roads, and stormwater pumps, in addition to creating more affordable housing opportunities. Still, more support is needed.

Waves crashing over a seawall at the mouth of the Miami River from Biscayne Bay as Hurricane Irma passes through

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

According to a 2015 report issued by Miami-Dade County, more than 60 percent of its 2.7 million residents are struggling to make ends meet, and around 21 percent live below the poverty level with annual incomes of less than $16,000. The Miami Herald reports that in Miami Beach, wage increases aren’t keeping pace with housing prices (rental or otherwise), causing service workers and public servants to leave. Now, the threat of getting priced out is creeping up the real estate map’s contour lines.

“We can’t have an economy that’s thriving if the workforce is not living where they work,” says Caroline Lewis, founder of the Miami-based Climate Leadership by Providing Engagement Opportunities (CLEO) Institute, a nonprofit that engages the public in climate change education and action. “If we’re going to create a society where the haves and have-nots are separated by two hours of traffic, it becomes unlivable, unfair, and furthers the strain on everything that life asks.”

Fortunately, there are ways to combat gentrification. Cities can develop inclusive processes and policies that ensure residents can chart a way forward in their own communities, explains NRDC’s Sasha Forbes. Forbes is the state and local policy coordinator for SPARCC (Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge), an initiative to improve the environmental, health, and racial equity of vulnerable communities in six U.S. cities. Community benefits agreements also can help. Under such agreements, a community group supports an upcoming development project in exchange for the developer providing a community need, such as affordable housing, green space, or jobs for local residents. Other strategies include enacting homeowner and tenant protections like rent control, just cause eviction, tax freezes, and community land trusts. Inclusionary zoning, whereby developers dedicate a percentage of new housing units to lower-income residents, can also help. In all, a mix of equitable housing protection, housing preservation, and new housing is needed.

People in line for admission to a food drive charity event in Little Havana, December 2018

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

“The time to implement protective policies is now,” says Forbes. “If we don’t move fast enough, we will see historic and institutional inequities repeat themselves, displacing cultures and people who could then suffer the consequences of housing insecurity and vulnerability to climate change.”

“Miami’s study will hopefully help the city understand that climate gentrification is a shift in demand across all incomes demographics,” says Jesse Keenan, the lead author of the Harvard study and a professor of urban development and climate adaptation. He says the problem is bigger than Liberty City, or Miami, or the whole of Florida. “We might have housing pressure in Atlanta from displacement originating in Florida, from state to state, and even transnationally as a component of climate migration.”

Unfortunately, some level of movement and displacement is inevitable. Put simply, people are going to move to where it doesn’t flood. And as the effects of climate change continue to batter Florida, much of the appreciation or depreciation of a household’s single largest asset, usually the house, will be out of the current owner’s control.

But there’s also an opportunity here, adds Keenan, a chance for cities to start living up to sustainability goals. Places like Miami, for instance, would have to densify development on higher land. Urban planners frequently promote higher-density layouts for efficiency in terms of transportation and to counteract sprawl; the challenge is to make sure that protective policies and plans for smart growth benefit everybody. This is particularly challenging in Miami-Dade, with its rapid growth, high fragmentation (34 municipalities), and too few civic institutions that give a voice to broad segments of the populace. Liberty City, and others, want a seat at the table.

“If I just had a magic wand, the county would give us the money to redevelop our own community in our own way,” says Gunder, laughing. “We have the ability to imagine a safe, clean, and healthy community.” But she fears time may be running out. “The water isn’t here yet, but the sharks are at the door.”

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