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Climate Change Is Creating an Affordable Housing Crisis in Miami

Tetra Images / Getty Images

By Jeremy Deaton

Miami ranks among the most valuable real estate markets in the country. Palatial homes astride warm, teal waters sell for millions. But it's not Miami's ocean-front neighborhoods where property values are rising fastest. Housing costs are climbing more rapidly in neighborhoods that lie a little higher up along a ridge that runs parallel to the shore.

These neighborhoods are best protected against climate change.

"That's the ridge where we put the railroad. And that's the ridge where we sent the black and brown people to live. And all of a sudden — because we've got people on the Atlantic low-line getting tidal flooding and people near the Everglades low-line getting flooding — guess where everybody wants to live? On the ridge. So guess who's being displaced? The brown and black people," said Caroline Lewis, executive director of the CLEO Institute, at a town hall on climate change and gentrification in Miami on Monday.

The forum was part of the Freedom to Breathe Tour, a cross-country bus tour that aims to shine a light on issues of climate, environment and social justice, including sea-level rise. "More people are taking notice," said Natalia Arias, director of programs at the CLEO Institute, in an interview. "Tons of people experience sunny-day flooding." When the moon drifts close to the Earth, tides grow, producing extra-large swells known as "king tides." Rising seas have made king tides more severe, leaving parts of Miami flooded on days without a drop of rain. This, in turn, is reshaping the real estate market.

Rising seas are depressing the value of waterfront property while inflating the cost of living further inland, in working-class communities of color like Little Haiti and Liberty City. Residents say that developers are targeting homeowners who are struggling financially, offering them buyouts or help relocating. Those are the lucky ones. Renters are more vulnerable to the whims of the market, and many are struggling as landlords ratchet up the cost of housing.

"We're experiencing an affordable housing crisis," Arias said. "People are being displaced from neighborhoods where they settled years or decades ago — where they go to school, where they go to work, where they have neighbors and family members nearby."

Advocates and experts gather to discuss climate change and gentrification in Miami, Aug. 27. CLEO Institute

Valencia Gunder, founder of Make the Homeless Smile, described the changing face of Miami at the town hall. "You're starting to see Bentleys parked in Little Haiti," she said. "We're starting to see people running down the street with their poodles." Gunder recalled shopping for a home in Liberty City in 2010, visiting a "dilapidated" property with an $80,000 price tag. She said she recently returned to that home to find its value had shot up — to $425,000.

The gentrification of Liberty City, one of the city's poorest communities, is somewhat ironic, given its history. The heart of the neighborhood is a public housing project that was constructed in the 1930s to shelter black families who had been forced from their homes in downtown Miami. Walk east from the housing project and you will find the remains of an 8-foot wall built to keep black residents hidden from their white neighbors. White families are now colonizing the far side of the wall — in part, it seems, to escape rising seas.

Researchers have a name for this phenomenon — climate gentrification. A recent study found that Miami is already seeing its effects. As the sea closes in on the city, low-lying homes are losing value, while those at higher elevations are growing more expensive. The effect is more pronounced closer to the coast, where the risk of flooding is greatest.

Miami-Dade properties at lower elevations are accruing value more slowly than those at higher elevations. Environmental Research Letters

The study identified three forces that drive climate gentrification. First, investors develop areas that are more protected from floods, expecting that, as seas rise, wealthy families will flee to higher ground. Second, the city invests in sea walls and other protections, driving up the cost of living in better-guarded neighborhoods. Third, coastal floods inflate the cost of insurance and repairs, forcing working-class families to sell their homes. All of it comes down to climate change.

Every day, cars, trucks, factories and power plants are pouring heat-trapping carbon pollution into the sky. The mercury is creeping up. Ice is melting, and seas are rising. Even under the more optimistic projections, Miami can expect to see floods three feet above the current sea level by mid-century, according to an analysis by Climate Central. That's enough to inundate the priciest parts of Miami, but too little to flood poorer areas, like Liberty City.

Miami, Florida. Areas that would be inundated by three feet of flooding are shaded in light blue (left). The population of Miami by ethnicity (right). Flood-prone areas are wealthier and whiter than more elevated areas further inland. Source: Climate Central

Advocates are urging officials to stabilize rents, build more affordable housing, and raise the minimum wage so that workers can keep pace with the cost of living. Many are also calling on officials to invest in wind and solar, and to prepare for coastal floods by erecting sea walls and other protections. They say such measures will generate well-paid jobs in construction and installation, a potential lifeline for communities burdened by low incomes and soaring rents.

Advocates believe this should be a political winner, as rising rents are driving away workers that businesses depend on. "We're talking about people who work in restaurants and in housekeeping roles in hotels, or are bussing tables in restaurants," Arias said. "You see residents that have an hour or two-hour commute to work." In some cases, workers are leaving Miami entirely.

"You have people that have two or three jobs, so there's no way that they could pick up a fourth job to be able to meet their increasing rent." Arias said. "At some point, I just don't see how they are going to be able to live here."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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