A man bikes through the flooding in the streets of Sweetwater in October. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com
A man bikes through the flooding in the streets of Sweetwater in October. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

Influencers Opinion

How can we address the effects of climate change on communities of color?

By Alex Harris

aharris@miamiherald.com

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August 13, 2018 06:00 AM

Climate change is a massive, complex, globe-spanning issue that affects every facet of our lives. And like most problems at its scale, it’s bound to affect the poor and people of color most significantly.

How can we address that in South Florida? That’s a question posed by a reader to the Florida Influencer Series, which taps the collective wisdom of 50 influential Floridians on topics important to the state in the run-up to the November election. This week, the issues are the environment and climate change, vital topics for residents who live at “ground zero” for sea-rise threats.

But singling out impacts to communities of color in particular can be difficult in Miami because, as Zelalem Adefris, resilience director of Catalyst Miami, put it, “Most of Miami is a community of color.”

“In Miami, it’s more of an economic issue,” she said.

The most at-risk population are poor people. They have the least amount of resources to escape the effects of climate change, by buying products or services to make weathering the changes easier. There is also increasing concern about the concept of “climate gentrification” — low-income residents being pushed out of higher elevation zones in South Florida. But in a region booming with redevelopment and market demand that have rapidly turned once struggling neighborhoods into trendy areas, many factors could be at work, including climate concerns.

But what is clear: When the water comes (experts predict we’ll see three to five feet of sea rise by the end of the century), poor people will be the most exposed to the impacts. Effects on health will likely come before anything else.

One of the simplest impacts of climate change to understand is heat. By around 2030 alone, Miami is predicted to experience about 130 days a year where the heat index makes it feel like it’s 105 degrees or hotter, according to Climate Central.

That heat, doctors say, makes all kinds of health conditions worse, like asthma, heart and lung disorders and mental illnesses. People who work outside, have insufficiently cooled homes or can’t afford to upgrade air-conditioning systems will feel the effects (both physically and financially) before anyone else.

A Miami patient of Dr. Cheryl Holder, president of the Florida State Medical Association, personifies the dilemma many low-income residents face when it comes to rising temperatures. Earlier this year, an elderly woman told Holder she was sweltering, but she didn’t want to leave her window open because she was worried about the crime in her neighborhood, and relying on her air conditioner left her with an unaffordable electricity bill.

Adefris pointed out that residents who use public transportation will also have to deal with the sun while they wait for their bus, and there aren’t many air-conditioned bus stops in the county. Plus, she said, “we have very poor tree cover” in the city to keep residents cool.

The most common heat-related solution experts talk about is installing community cooling centers, which are air-conditioned buildings open to the public on hot days, but other solutions include mandating efficient and working air-conditioning systems in low-income or public housing.

But when people talk about climate change in South Florida, they most often mean sea level rise. Climate change’s most visible impact in the region is concentrated in coastal areas, which are typically the most expensive real estate. Only a few mixed or low-income communities (like Shorecrest, Arch Creek and Little Havana in Miami-Dade) experience coastal flooding exacerbated by sea rise, although sunny-day flooding in inland communities like Doral or Sweetwater isn’t uncommon.

Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. The city is rolling out its plan of attack and will spend between $400-$500 million over the next five years doing so.

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The city of Miami is working on a plan to address sea-rise-related flooding in Shorecrest, and the county commissioned a study of flood-prone Arch Creek last year.

Instead, the most well-known historic communities of color, like Liberty City, Little Haiti, Overtown and Allapattah, bloomed on what was then considered less attractive real estate — more inland, on higher ground. Now those communities are being gentrified quickly, and some activists worry it’s because developers are looking for higher elevation land.

Developers push back on the premise, suggesting that areas like Little Haiti are being gentrified because of their proximity to the Design District and Wynwood, not for their elevation. But a Harvard study this year showed that higher elevation land is gaining value more quickly than lower elevation properties, which the author called empirical evidence of “climate gentrification.”

Activists are increasingly sounding the alarm about the trend, including Catalyst Miami, New Florida Majority and the CLEO Institute. Miami’s sea level rise committee dedicated its most recent meeting to the topic. Board members asked city staff to research possible policy choices that would protect low-income homeowners from being forced out of their homes before they find a new place to live, like a delay on paying property taxes for a few years until the property is sold.

Whatever causes it, gentrification is clearly happening in these neighborhoods, and it’s pushing low-income residents out of some of the area’s highest ground. In Liberty City, only about 4 percent of homes were worth more than $100,000 in 2000, according to Florida International University’s Neighborhood Changes project. By 2014, more than half of homes were worth more than $100,000.

As flood insurance premiums rise and property values begin to be affected by sea rise, experts worry there will be less affordable neighborhoods for the region’s working class.

That will be a crisis “way before sea level rise hits,” said Florida International University Professor Hugh Gladwin, who studies climate gentrification in the area. “It’s like we’re losing what we need to keep going, which is a workforce that can stay here.”

This story was inspired by a question submitted by a reader through the Your Voice tool, powered by Hearken. Our next question for this series concerns healthcare in Florida. Tell us what healthcare issues are most important to you this election year. Your responses will help guide our future coverage.