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Climate gentrification: Is sea rise turning Miami high ground into a hot commodity?


When Paulette Richards answered the door of her Liberty City home a year ago, she found two men standing there.

Someone filed foreclosure on your property today and we’re here to see if you’re interested in selling,” they told her.

“I was blown away,” said the 58-year-old great grandma, who’d been struggling to pay her mortgage after an uninsured bout with cancer left her deep in medical debt. “They knew before I did.”

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That door knock wasn’t the start — or the end — of the campaign to buy the four-bedroom bungalow Richards had lived in since just before Thanksgiving in 2001. Her family had to take the house phone off the hook after repeated calls from prospective buyers. She said she gets about five letters a day from people offering to buy her home; one even included a Google Maps picture of the house.

Like Richards, many inner city Miami residents of say they are feeling the pressure to abandon their community to developers in the race to get rich in Miami’s historically black and minority neighborhoods, some of the last cheap land left in the booming coastal city.

Gentrification isn’t new in Miami, where developers routinely turn poor neighborhoods into the newest real estate hot commodity. But some neighborhood advocates believe there is a new accelerant at work in communities like Liberty City.

“We’re what you call prime real estate. We’re on high ground,” Richards said.

Low-lying Miami faces anywhere from 14 to 34 inches of sea rise by 2060, and some believe developers see the scarce high ground (much of it in the city occupied by low-income communities of color) as a safe investment. They call it climate gentrification.

Miami’s two existential issues — a scarcity of affordable housing and rising sea levels — intersect with climate gentrification. There is no doubt developers are snapping up property and pushing out longtime residents. People living in these targeted areas, bolstered by data analysis from some outside researchers, firmly believe elevation is driving the rush for real estate in their neighborhoods. But many developers and industry experts say sea-rise concerns are overblown, pointing to similar upscaling waves in once-affordable waterfront neighborhoods like Edgewater.

But even with data, it’s difficult to pinpoint climate as a driver of a South Florida real estate market that has a long history of building homes or neighborhoods, then knocking them down to start over again.

That’s why the city of Miami recently decided to study the issue and come up with solutions, as well as dedicate $4 million from the Miami Forever Bond toward helping residents at risk from these forces fix up their homes. Miami appears to be the first city in the U.S. to formally consider the topic.

Jane Gilbert, the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, said there’s no firm timeline or plan on how the research will be conducted, but the first step is to identify the areas at risk. The commonly identified low-income, high-elevation areas are Liberty City, Overtown, Allapattah, Little Havana and Little Haiti. Next is figuring out which of the city’s policies already help those areas and what gaps still exist.

Residents of the city of Miami’s highest ground, the coral ridge that stretches from north Miami-Dade County to the upper Florida Keys, are mostly people of color forced decades ago into what were once less attractive areas by racist “red lining” mortgage lending practices, segregation and other social policies. Other more-elevated places in the city include sections of Coconut Grove that already have pricey homes that are more immune to gentrification led by land flippers.

Little Haiti business owners say they will be displaced by the developer who bought the strip mall on the 8200 block of NE Second Avenue where their shops and restaurants are located. C.M. GUERRERO.

The city’s decision is a victory for activists who have been warning about the problem for years, including New Florida Majority’s Valencia Gunder, a Liberty City resident.

“A few years ago no one believed it was real. People thought it was something we were just making up,” she said. “Residents have been trying to fight this battle by themselves; it’s finally now we have government on our side.”

Yoca Arditi-Rocha of the CLEO Institute, a Miami climate action advocacy group, said the decision is a validation of the fears community members have been expressing in CLEO’s listening sessions in these communities for years.

Residents are worried that “predatory” developers are trying to push them out of their homes because they want the high ground that will be safe when the seas invade.

“I didn’t buy a house for investment. I bought this to live in, to die in,” said Richards. “It’s my legacy, my home, my worth. Without that what else do I have?”

Richards’ home, which she bought for $90,000 less than two decades ago, is now worth more than $250,000, according to Zillow.

Little Haiti, which is often pointed to as the poster child for this phenomena, has seen a 1,121 percent increase in owner-occupied units worth more than $150,000 from 2000 to 2014, according to Florida International University’s Neighborhood Changes project.

Local business owners in Little Haiti staged a protest this spring after a developer bought a strip mall that was home to a tuxedo shop in business for 30 years, a dressmaker and immigration services, evicted all the tenants immediately and started construction on ebb + flow, an upscale shopping center with the tagline “stay rooted.”

While the gentrification part of the equation is easy to prove, the climate part is more complicated.

A new government report from a team of scientists warns that rising sea levels, particularly in Florida, mean greater damage from storm surges during hurricanes such as Hurricanes Michael and Irma. In this photo, Mia Herman perches atop a fire hydrant after Hurricane Irma flooded Brickell Avenue. Matt McClain The Washington Post

The real estate industry that Miami’s economy depends on has pushed back hard on the concept that higher land is a more popular product. One luxury broker called it “fake news.” They argue it’s just regular gentrification happening in areas adjacent to development hot spots.

Jorge Perez, a developer known as the “condo king of South Florida,” said while location is the number one factor in real estate, elevation is just a “topic of interest” for now, with more of a focus on proximity to transportation and entertainment.

“It’s hard to say for sure if the threat of sea level rise really is quickening the gentrification of high-lying areas like Little Haiti, especially when you consider Little Haiti and other nearby areas have been targeted by savvy real estate investors for years,” he said.

The edges of Miami’s hottest neighborhoods, like Wynwood and the Design District, are already bleeding into Little Haiti, which only earned an official city neighborhood designation in 2016 after a decade of activism from residents.

David Martin, a Miami developer who often talks about the impact of climate change in his work, said Miami is experiencing development pressure because of the growing number of people who want to live in the city.

Obviously people believe the discovery of certain new neighborhoods in our city is allowing people to discover new neighborhoods that people haven’t discovered before,” he said. “I do think neighborhood elevation is part of a discussion, but it’s not the only thing.”

There are also low-elevation areas vulnerable to sea level rise seeing a flood of investment, like Edgewater and Brickell.

“Gentrification is happening. No question about that. Is it driven by increased sea levels in low-lying areas in the county? That remains to be seen,” Arditi-Rocha said.

King tide brought high waters that flooded several low-lying streets on Normandy Isle in North Beach on Oct. 5, 2017. New research shows that lower elevation single-family homes, which are more vulnerable to sea level rise, gain value slower than their higher elevation peers. Joey Flechas MIAMI HERALD

The one study that claims to have proven that climate gentrification exists is from Harvard University’s Jesse Keenan. His research found that low-elevation single-family homes in Miami-Dade gained value slower than their high-elevation companions, conclusions that other studies have also reached.

Keenan said it shows that climate gentrification is about demand, not supply, as Miami activists have characterized it. Home buyers throughout the county are looking for houses on elevated land, and it’s plentiful and cheap in Miami’s inland communities.

“It’s more than one or two developers taking over a neighborhood. It’s about a shift in consumer preferences,” he said. “You can’t stop a change in consumer preferences.”

Keenan sees climate gentrification in the mass exodus from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans decided it wasn’t feasible to live in such a risky region, and in Golden Beach, where the cost of living in a vulnerable community has risen so high only the ultrawealthy can remain.

Whether it’s regular gentrification or climate-related displacement, the effect in Miami’s already vulnerable communities is the same. And once they’ve sold out (or been kicked out), there are not many affordable options left in city limits.

“This is the refrain we hear over and over in Little Haiti. ‘Where am I going to go?’” said Marliene Bastien, executive director of the Haitian advocacy group Family Action Network Movement.

Kilan Bishop, the Miami Sea Level Rise Committee member who spearheaded the push for the resolution, said displaced residents could head to another low-income neighborhood of comparable elevation, like inland Broward, or they could move to a flood-prone neighborhood, like Sweetwater.

“Since we can’t necessarily track them to a place and help them there, it’s really crucial we keep the lifeblood of our city, our working class, in their neighborhood, in places they are comfortable,” she said. “We could be setting ourselves up for a clusterf*** by displacing people into more vulnerable areas.”

One potential solution is to pack more people into bigger buildings in these high-elevation areas, like some of the major developments in Little Haiti plan to do and developers like Perez support. Miami just passed legislation that mandated more workforce housing allowances in Overtown, a solution several climate gentrification activists are pushing for in other neighborhoods.

If that density doesn’t include affordable and workplace housing for the residents its displacing, Bishop said this solution could leave the city with the same disparity issues with just slightly more flood protection.

“We only have so much room in this city, and it has to accommodate a lot more people as we lose ground to water,” she said. “How do we ensure that though we’re building affordable housing and we’re saying we want everybody there, how do we ensure those people are there 20 years down the line?”

Martin, the developer, has been pushing for zoning in gentrifying areas that would allow slightly larger buildings that still fit with the character of the community, like a three-story garden style apartment building with no parking.

“The long term solutions are density next to transit and schools and amenities, and that’s where higher ground is,” he said.

Other possible answers include a freeze on property taxes for homeowners facing pressures to sell. The taxes would still add up, and the homeowner would owe them as a lump sum if the property was sold. Advocates are also interested in community land trusts, where a nonprofit buys a chunk of land, builds multiple houses on it and leases them to low-income residents.

More ideas are on the way. The University of Miami’s Housing Solutions Lab recently received a $300,000 grant from JPMorgan to study the impact of sea level rise on affordable housing in South Florida and suggest solutions. Robin Faith Bachin, a UM history professor, said they expect to present policy solutions in late 2020.

“For a long time these issues have been dealt with in parallel but not in concert,” she said. “We need to look at them in a cohesive way to see how our most vulnerable properties, our most under-resourced communities are going to respond to sea level rise and be resilient.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Paulette Richards lived in Little Haiti.

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