As Miami Faces Threats From Sea Level Rise, Some Worry About Climate Gentrification

Dec 2, 2019
Originally published on December 2, 2019 11:02 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Miami faces a major threat from sea level rise. But there are parts of the city that don't flood, and that's becoming a selling point for real estate developers. Nadege Green of member station WLRN reports.

NADEGE GREEN, BYLINE: Miami is open about its challenges with climate change. The city organized this recent community meeting for neighbors to talk about how it's affecting their lives. David McNamara is sitting at a table with a handful of other men.

DAVID MCNAMARA: I'm in a flood zone and pay for flood insurance for my home in Morningside. I feel like any moment now - you know, I'm sort of on borrowed time.

GREEN: McNamara's home is in an affluent neighborhood just steps away from Biscayne Bay.

MCNAMARA: Sea level rise comes in at some point there. It's - no one's going to buy it.

GREEN: James Valsaint is sitting right across from him. Valsaint grew up about a five-minute drive away from McNamara in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.

JAMES VALSAINT: We have a higher elevation, so thankfully, flooding is one of the least of our problems.

GREEN: Little Haiti is a working-class, predominantly black immigrant community. It doesn't flood there, but Valsaint tells McNamara he's also concerned about the rising water.

VALSAINT: Because of the fact that we're very high above sea level. So they're basically preparing to move in all the coastal people and push the rest of us Haitians and the more, you know, less - not-so-rich people out of the community.

GREEN: And this fear is growing. The historically black neighborhoods in Miami were built west of the railroad tracks along a limestone ridge, seven to 10 feet above sea level. White communities were built in the flood-prone and low-lying coastal areas near the beach and waterfront views. Now the city's black neighborhoods are starting to see signs that their higher elevation is attractive to developers and investors.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARA BAND PLAYING)

GREEN: Most Friday nights in Little Haiti, a rara band moves through the streets. Crowds dance past homes painted in island hues - turquoise, yellow and green. For nearly 30 years, Louis Rosemont called this home.

LOUIS ROSEMONT: (Speaking Creole).

GREEN: He says he was renting his last apartment with a roommate. But last year, he was evicted. His landlord said he wanted to demolish the building.

ROSEMONT: We have some developer come in Little Haiti. We cannot afford nothing in there. The rent is so expensive.

GREEN: Now he lives a 45-minute bus ride away. And his old apartment building - it's an empty lot with a for-sale sign on it.

A 2018 Harvard study looked at high-elevation communities in the Miami area and found many of the properties were outperforming lower-lying areas and how quickly their values were going up. The study put into focus the theory of a fairly new term called climate gentrification. Of course, there are also the typical pressures - cheap land, proximity to downtown and public transit. And to be clear, there's still a wave of high-rises going up in neighborhoods that flood. But some urban planners say it's just smart to build on high elevation.

Jane Gilbert is the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami.

JANE GILBERT: As we look at long-term projections of sea level rise and flood risk challenges, certainly, it's going to make more sense to have - ideally, in a perfect world - ideally more density in our higher-ground areas.

GREEN: A recent report commissioned by the city recommended building in neighborhoods that are flood-resilient. Gilbert says the city will have to come up with a plan for the residents who are at risk of being priced out from new development.

GILBERT: How do we make sure that as we increase density, we have equity in mind, that we have affordability in mind?

GREEN: In Little Haiti, a new billion-dollar development project was met with protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Little Haiti's not for sale.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Little Haiti's not for sale.

GREEN: In documents submitted to the city, the developers included a topographic map to show that the project's location is safe from flooding. And even the name of one of the many investment companies buying property in the neighborhood is telling - Premium Elevation LLC. Other predominantly black and higher-elevation communities in Miami are looking at Little Haiti as a warning sign of what's to come.

VALENCIA GUNDER: So my grandfather - he always would talk to us and, like - they're going to come steal our communities 'cause it don't flood.

GREEN: Valencia Gunder is a climate activist, and she lives just west of Little Haiti in Liberty City, which sits at least 10 feet above sea level. She worries about what could be lost if the people who called these neighborhoods home for decades are displaced.

GUNDER: Your new buildings don't create culture. Now, it may bring a new set of people in here, but the culture of what these places are will leave once you push the people out 'cause people create culture, not buildings.

GREEN: Miami is taking the concept of climate gentrification seriously. It's launched its own study to find out how much higher ground might be driving development in this fast-growing city.

For NPR News, I'm Nadege Green in Miami.

CHANG: A version of this story was originally produced for the podcast "There Goes The Neighborhood: Miami" by member stations WLRN and WNYC.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.