Is climate change gentrification really happening in Miami?

Alexandre Larmier, 28, is a Miami native and realtor who goes out of his way to make sure his clients only purchase property on high ground.

“I tend to advise against buying in flood zone areas, and when people do want that, I really try to explain to them the associated risk,” he says.

He makes the effort because he understands that rising seas pose a unique threat, one that could potentially devalue any low-lying property. Quickly.

“I don’t want to feel guilty about that,” he says.

Growing awareness about sea level rise – and how quickly it’s becoming a problem – is definitely beginning to change what neighborhoods people want to live in.

But is it actually causing climate change-driven gentrification, like some say? Or are rising prices just part of the plain-old “the rent was getting too high” gentrification that many of us are experiencing?

Much of our high ground lies along a geologic formation known as the coastal ridge, which elevates parts of neighborhoods like Liberty City and Little Haiti up to 13 feet above sea level. While segregation and red-lining made these less desirable neighborhoods for a long time, residents worry the higher ground is now luring outsiders who will soon price them out.

“We’re starting to see climate gentrification on a high level. People think we’re joking, or we are making it up, or it’s not a thing, but it is,” says Valencia Gunder, lead organizer for New Florida Majority and a Liberty City resident

James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County, says he doubts that.

“Right now we’re experiencing more of the classic gentrification that comes with a growing real estate economy,”  he stated to the Architect’s newspaper on April 12, 2017.

So which is it? In an effort to clear up the confusion, The New Tropic has broken the issue down into five questions.

What drives gentrification in Miami?

While the idea of gentrification might be easy to grasp (rich people move in, “improving” the neighborhood, while the original, lower-income residents get displaced), the forces that drive it are a bit harder to see.

Miami-Dade already has an affordability crisis. The rent is too damn high, the wages are too low, and not nearly enough affordable housing exists for middle income earners looking to buy a home.

The county also has a glut of high-priced condos, built by developers hoping to sell them to foreign and out-of-state buyers. Those same developers are one of the main movers of the region’s economy, and their constant hunger for deals has driven investment in centrally located urban neighborhoods.

That’s how you end up with what’s going on in Little Haiti, an urban core neighborhood situated just north of Wynwood, where median home prices have risen 20 percent in just one year.  

Okay, so how does climate change play into  gentrification?

In the past decade, the oceans around Miami rose 9 millimeters a year. That trend is only going to accelerate.

According to Murley, by 2030 the county will have lost 25 percent of its drinking water and 1 percent of its total land area to the encroaching water. Major roads will be impassable at high tide.

The North Beach Master Plan, which outlines the vision for the neighborhood’s future, proposes dealing with swelling seas by raising roads with landfill, and raising structures with hydraulic lifts.

That’s great, but it’s also ludicrously expensive. At a recent workshop on home raising, the cost of raising a single family home by one foot was estimated to be about $100,000.

And then there’s the insurance. Wayne Pathman, who chairs the City of Miami sea level rise committee, has been warning of a major increase in flood insurance costs, and soon.

Homeowners could see premiums go up by 19 percent in the next two years. He points out that “For every $500 worth of increase in flood insurance, you lose $10,000 of property value.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see that higher water levels will mean greater and greater costs for those living at lower elevations.

But low lying neighborhoods like Edgewater and Brickell are exploding in price. What gives?

Simply put, the market isn’t terribly good at pricing information about sea level rise into real estate yet. Hugh Gladwin, an associate professor of Global and Sociocultural Studies at FIU, points to neighborhoods like Shorecrest as an example.

There, median home prices have risen some $200,000 since their 2011 low, even though, as he puts it, “[Shorecrest is] going underwater as we speak.” People keep moving in because of the area’s proximity to downtown and the water.

But Gladwin, who is working on a study about the issue, notes that “statistically, there is starting to be evidence that higher ground properties are pricing higher and starting to move as evidence of what I guess we could call sea level gentrification.” He expects the trend is only going to accelerate in the coming years.

Caroline Lewis, founder and director of The CLEO institute, a local climate education non-profit, started hearing about climate driven gentrification during community listening sessions in Little Haiti and in Liberty City.

Realizing that resident’s claims about developers coming in and buying up the high ground would be hard to prove, she encouraged Gladwin to create a map that plots all owners with 15 or more pieces of land in Little Haiti to the height above sea level of their parcels. Editor’s note: We’ve updated this paragraph to clarify how the map project came about.

Though the map doesn’t prove the existence of height above sea level influencing speculation, it helps tell the story.

“It might be anecdotal, but it’s no secret anymore,” she points out.

What happens to the people who get displaced by gentrification (climate driven or otherwise)?

The simple answer is that they move farther away.

Some move out of Miami-Dade county completely. Over 16,000 in the past year, in fact, and mainly due to the city’s unaffordability.

Though an exact accounting of where people displaced by gentrification is hard to find, data taken from the Miami Affordability Project map, which was created by UM’s office of civic and community engagement, can provide a clue.

Sweetwater and Homestead, two of the fastest growing cities in the whole state last year, also show up on the map as having some of the highest concentrations of middle-class families in the county. Their rapid growth is due in part to the fact that they’re some of the few pockets of affordable housing left.

But Sweetwater and Homestead are also some of the most vulnerable and low lying neighborhoods in the county. The average elevation for Homestead is just under three feet above sea level. Sweetwater is notorious for flooding if the sky even looks like it’s thinking about rain.

So how can we tell the difference between climate gentrification and garden variety development?

Right now, we really can’t. Even Alex Larmier, who deals with these questions everyday, thinks “it’s hard to tease out whether people are buying Little Haiti because of gentrification, or because it’s a great area.”

He suspects some 20 percent of his buyers think about elevation when they go out looking for property. But that may soon change with the rise in insurance rates.

“I think a big thing is, until you see flood insurance rates go up, people aren’t gonna believe [climate change] is an imminent threat.”

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)