MIAMI ― Myesha Pugh fled the apartment complex where she spent the first 30 years of her life after an insect wormed into her grandmother’s ear in the middle of the night. “My dad took her to the hospital, and the hospital retrieved a live cockroach,” she recounts with disgust.
Conditions at the multi-family complex in the heart of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, where rents hovered around $500 a month, quickly deteriorated after the original owner died and left it to her children. “I personally think they’re waiting for the city to condemn the building,” says Pugh.
Miami has a housing crisis, and Pugh is one of its victims. Soaring rents have led to a shortage of affordable housing, which in turn has led to a surge in slum conditions. For some owners, allowing apartments to disintegrate is pure neglect; for others, it’s a strategy to turf out tenants to make it easier to sell up. But whatever the reason, when residents like Pugh are forced to leave their rundown apartments, many find it impossible to afford another home in the neighborhood.
Overtown, along with other downtown Miami neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color, is losing affordable housing and rapidly gentrifying. But gentrification in these areas isn’t just being driven by market forces. Climate change is also having an impact.
As rising sea levels visibly affect the wealthier, lower-lying areas of South Florida with dramatic and costly sunny-day flooding, prices are starting to rise farther inland, in the neighborhoods that tourists don’t see. Working-class places like Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City were created by redlining, a historically racist policy that denied mortgages to people of color outside of certain neighborhoods. They are now in rapid transition. And in Miami, those areas just happen to be on the high ground.
Miami’s metro area has 44 percent of its population living at or around the poverty line. Wages are some of the lowest of any major city in the country, 68 percent of inhabitants are renters, and rental prices are the highest relative to income in the U.S.
The sharp increase in prices is due to a tangle of factors: shortsighted urban planning, underinvestment in affordable housing, and a lack of regulation thanks to the outsized influence of developers.
But climate change is edging onto this list. High ground is slowly becoming more valuable, according to an April study authored by Harvard University academics and published in Environmental Research Letters, which called the phenomenon “climate gentrification”.
It’s going to be pretty much impossible to keep the lowest-lying areas of the city viable in a much more watery future, says Jesse Keenan, a professor of architecture at Harvard’s graduate school of design and an author of the study. Given the reality of sea level rise, “it’s not brain surgery to see that there’s not enough public money to extend a universal guarantee for the resilience of Miami’s infrastructure and the delivery of urban services,” he said.
Investors are starting to take note. “Clients asking about [sea level rise] used to be once a month, then once a week, now it’s virtually every meeting,” explains Marc Singer, founding partner of Singer Xenos Schecter Sosler, a wealth management firm that focuses on South Florida.
Singer believes that rising sea levels are going to amplify the already intense swings of the local real estate market, and he’s advising his clients, who are typically worth $3 million to $5 million, to limit their exposure to waterfront real estate.
“There’s one big difference between a real estate correction and a real estate correction fueled by sea level rise,” Singer says. “The former always recovers, but sea level is not going back down.”
Enterprising developers have taken note of the general anxiety and have begun marketing their projects in terms of resilience to climate change. The Magic City Innovation District, a 17-acre mega-development in the heart of Little Haiti, is one example. The huge campus will include 2,500 housing units and more than 300,000 square feet of retail space, according to the Miami New Times.
The project “is on the highest land in Southeast Florida,” says Neisen Kasdin, counsel for the development and former mayor of Miami Beach. “It’s on the coastal ridge that lies as much as 15 or more feet above sea level and is not susceptible to sea level rise and storm events and flooding.”
The fact that developers are now talking up the elevation of their projects points to a fundamental difference between normal gentrification and climate gentrification. Climate gentrification is not just about supply, says Keenan. “It’s fundamentally about demand. And what our paper showed is that demand is changing … and that is a much bigger problem.” Buyers throughout South Florida are seeing value in properties that are on higher ground, and they’re willing to pay a premium.
But residents aren’t accepting climate gentrification without a fight. “Resilience needs to be seen as more than just that the housing is on high ground,” explains Meena Jagannath, co-founder of The Community Justice Project, a nonprofit legal services group. “Are you then pushing out the people who were there into areas that are more climate vulnerable?”
Jagannath has been part of a resistance to five new mega-projects now being proposed in the historically minority Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti. Taken together, these five projects represent a startling densification of what had been, until recently, a neighborhood of single-family homes. The development has contributed to sharp increase housing prices this year: Single-family homes are up 8 percent, rent is up more than $400, and many of the borough’s Haitian small business owners have been forced to leave.
The intensity of proposed development is ostensibly in keeping with the city’s building code, which prioritizes dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods connected by transport corridors.
To a certain extent, that increased density is a good thing. Miami needs to get as many folks on high ground as possible, as quickly as possible, given the fact that the area could see up to 10 inches of sea level rise by 2030, two feet by 2060, and five feet by 2100. It is estimated that a two-foot rise in water levels would physically displace nearly 50,000 residents in Miami-Dade County, and a six-foot increase would displace almost 1 million.
But Jagannath often finds Miami’s building code in the way of her efforts to keep the city’s urban core communities from being displaced. That’s because of a provision for developers that acquire at least nine contiguous acres and commit a small percentage to open space. Those developers can avoid height and density restrictions, move roads, and delay community consultation until late in the planning process.
“The needs of a community are not taken into consideration in the early stages of design of the project,” Jagannath says. This can lead to displacement and other negative impacts, she adds, just as the city attempts to shift more population onto high ground.
Myesha Pugh still works the same job that she did when she lived in Overtown, but now pays $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom in Miami Gardens, an hour north of downtown Miami by public transportation.
She misses Overtown. “Everyone knew each other. You knew your neighbors, your neighbors’ family.” Her new place is clean of cockroaches, but her rent tripled, her commute doubled, and her new apartment is closer to sea level.
Her new home on lower ground makes her more vulnerable to storm surges, hurricanes and flooding. Overtown, the second-oldest neighborhood in Miami, sits at around 10 feet above sea level. Miami Gardens, some 17 miles from downtown, has an average elevation of only seven feet.
One way of tackling the problem of climate gentrification specifically, and gentrification in general, is to demand that developers set aside a certain number of units at below-market rates, in exchange for allowances to build higher and denser, says Keenan.
In a move easing the impact on Little Haiti, The Magic City Innovation District has already done as much, setting aside 21 percent of its units for affordable and workforce housing. But its move was voluntary. Efforts to codify such a practice ― called inclusionary zoning ― failed in 2016 in the Miami-Dade County Commission, but were recently put into place for a few blocks in the city of Miami. Developers elsewhere in the city and county do not have to abide by such mandates.
“I think there needs to be immediate action to address our communities’ living situation, to make sure they are not displaced, make sure there is affordable housing which we don’t have a lot of, period,” says Frances Colón, a city Sea Level Rise Committee member. Though the city recently announced it is devoting $15 million to affordable housing programs as part of a $400 million resilience bond passed last year, it has held off devoting more money to the problem pending further study.
The Sea Level Rise Committee, an independent citizen advisory board tasked with helping Miami adapt, recently got the city commission to vote on a resolution to study the issue. Yet as prices balloon ― the average price per square foot went up 26 percent in just one year in Liberty City, another high-ground, historically black neighborhood ― Colón worries that studies won’t be enough.
“I do not get the feeling that the city understands the urgency and the gravity of the issue,” she warns.
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