Cli­mate change project di­vides a neigh­bor­hood

Low-ly­ing Mi­ami faces up to 34 inches of sea rise by 2060, and some be­lieve de­vel­op­ers see the high ground as a safe in­vest­ment

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Local - By Alex Har­ris

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.”

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 gen­tri­fica-

tion led by land flip­pers.

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.

The real es­tate in­dus­try that Mi­ami’s econ­omy de­pends on has pushed back hard on the con­cept that higher land is a more popu—

lar 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.

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 sin­gle­fam­ily homes in Mi­amiDade 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 low­in­come 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.”


Lit­tle Haiti busi­ness own­ers worry they will be dis­placed by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion if a busi­ness­man is al­lowed to ren­o­vate and make rent un­af­ford­able.


A truck drives through the wa­ters of king tides that floodd the streets along Mi­ami Beach in this photo demon­strat­ing sea-level rise.


Brick­ell Av­enue in Mi­ami was flooded after Hur­ri­cane Irma. Mike Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sen­tinel

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