Gentrification fears grow as high ground becomes hot property

By Erika Bolstad | 05/01/2017 08:18 AM EDT

MIAMI — Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, once redlined by lenders, now have an amenity not yet in the real estate listings: They’re on higher ground and are less likely to flood as seas rise.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visualization maps show what rising sea levels will mean at a granular level. Areas that are hydrologically connected are shown in shades of blue, and the darker the blue, the greater the water depth. Low-lying areas, displayed in green, are hydrologically "unconnected" areas that may flood.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visualization maps show what rising sea levels will mean at a granular level. Areas that are hydrologically connected are shown in shades of blue, and the darker the blue, the greater the water depth. Low-lying areas, displayed in green, are hydrologically "unconnected" areas that may flood. Map courtesy of NOAA.

MIAMI — One of the first sea-level rise maps Broadway Harewood saw was a few years back, when climate activists gathered in his neighborhood to talk about how global warming would affect people in less-affluent South Florida communities.

Harewood had a realization, one that he illustrates with his hands. One hand represents the city of Miami Beach. The opposite hand, moving like the incoming tide, demonstrates how the seas will eventually rise, potentially bringing the coastline of South Florida closer to Miami’s historically black neighborhoods — properties like his investments in Liberty City that sit on comparatively higher ground.

"Oh, Miami Beach is going under, the sea level is coming up," Harewood said. "So now the rich people have to find a place to live. My property is 15 feet above sea level, theirs is what? Three under?


"So OK," he said, taking on the voice of a rich developer, "let’s knock down the projects, and we move in and push them out."

If there’s anything more complicated than the global forces of thermal expansion, ice sheet melt and ocean circulation that contribute to worldwide sea-level rise, it might be the forces of real estate speculation and the race-based historical housing patterns that color present-day gentrification in Miami.

One of the great ironies of those historic housing patterns in Miami is that for decades under Jim Crow, laws and zoning restricted black people to parts of the urban core, an older part of the community that sits on relatively higher ground along a limestone ridge that runs like a topographic stripe down the eastern coast of South Florida. Now, many of those neighborhoods, formerly redlined by lenders and in some places bound in by a literal color wall, have an amenity not yet in the real estate listings: They’re on higher ground and are less likely to flood as seas rise.

Whether it’s climate change or an eye for good real estate returns, historically black communities on higher ground are increasingly in the sights of speculators and investors. Real estate investment may no longer be just about the next hot neighborhood, it may also now be about the next dry neighborhood.

"It’s hideously complicated, like everything else," said Hugh Gladwin, an anthropologist at Florida International University in Miami whose specialty is using geographic information system mapping to understand large, diverse urban settings. He’s beginning to see evidence that suggests climate change is now a part of the gentrification story in Miami real estate.

"The real issue is: Are people making real estate decisions based on climate change futures, rather than sort of normal speculation?" Gladwin said.

Gentrification and its troubling ironies

Broadway Harewood
Broadway Harewood predicts that developers will seek out properties like his in Liberty City, which sit on comparatively higher ground. | Photo by Erika Bolstad.

Jesse Keenan, a lawyer who teaches climate change adaptation at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, thinks people are making that exact calculation. Keenan, whose family roots date to Miami’s time as the Army outpost Fort Dallas, says he started seeing evidence a few years ago of investors leaving Miami Beach in search of higher ground.

Keenan, who lives in Massachusetts now, still owns a house and has an office and a parking spot in Miami Beach. He expects to publish research in the coming year that will zero in on the speculative behavior leading to gentrification in some neighborhoods. He’s doing it by analyzing property transaction records, Postal Service mail-forwarding information and census track data.

He’s also begun to see evidence in survey data that middle-income people are leaving Miami Beach and other places with nuisance flooding that makes it difficult to get around at high tides or insure a car. Those people will crowd out existing affordable housing, especially rentals, he said.

No one can turn a blind eye to the projections everyone uses in South Florida: 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2060.

"Everybody I know that is a small owner of real estate that isn’t within the billionaire class — average middle-class, upper-middle-class Miamians who have real estate on the beach — is in the process of selling their properties and moving to the mainland," Keenan said. "Basically where the coral ridge is, just north of downtown and south of downtown, that’s where anecdotally the most amount of speculative investment has been going in because historically that’s been the highest ground."

Keenan’s not certain, but he thinks he may have coined the term "climate gentrification." In Miami, it’s the reverse of the process in many other parts of the United States, or even in the developing world, where the poorest people most vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise often live on low ground most vulnerable to flooding.

"To be on the beach and to be on the water costs a lot more money, and the cheaper parts of town were furthest from the beach — but it just turns out that the cheapest parts of town farthest from the beach are the highest elevation, and now they’re worth a lot more than they used to be," Keenan said. "That’s it, it’s that simple."

But there’s a complex racial history to the patterns of gentrification unfolding in Miami. If Keenan’s research bears out, people could be departing the very beachfront communities that were off-limits to black people by law and custom until the mid-1960s. And in the era of climate change, those fleeing sea-level rise will be on the lookout for a place to live on higher ground, which is likely to push people of color and the poor out of neighborhoods that have historically been mostly black or Caribbean.

Already that’s happening, although climate has little to do with it, and Keenan and other researchers are seeking ways to identify where and how it’s happening because of climate change.

Don’t expect high ground to be much better

Hugh Gladwin
Hugh Gladwin, an anthropologist at Florida International University in Miami, specializes in using geographic information system mapping to understand large, diverse urban settings. | Photo by Erika Bolstad.

As seas rise, it won’t be pretty, said Sam Purkis and Gregor Eberli, marine geologists at the University of Miami who offered to explain the area’s geologic history and how it could help predict the effects of sea-level rise in the coming decades.

"You amplify the effect of sea-level rise during times of storms and spring tides," Eberli said. "That’s where we really will see the effects first. And then it will be devastating or destructive in some places. You sort of go over that tipping point where the water doesn’t just wash up, but sort of takes out the coastal environment, the coastal construction."

In the short term, the biggest threat to Florida’s long-term existence in the context of sea-level rise is also one of its most familiar threats: a big hurricane like 1992’s Andrew or 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

"What will happen, more than likely, is that you’ll have one big hurricane, and you’ll get a big inundation into the city," Purkis said. "And that will serve to rot out the infrastructure — the sewer lines, the electricity, the telecoms. Everything that’s under the road. That becomes very costly to keep replacing every time this happens."

But higher ground won’t be pleasant with "all of the rotting detritus and just general mayhem that that’s going to cause," Purkis said. "So by the time the city starts to flood, it’s probably not great to be in the high areas either."

Purkis, a recent University of Miami hire, remains skeptical that sea-level rise drives current real estate decisions. Nonetheless, during his own home search earlier this year, he drove around the city with elevation maps that helped him identify his home in Coconut Grove, approximately 16 feet above sea level.

"That’s the thing, talking to geologists," Purkis joked. "It’s all expected."

It could be that the Miami of the future looks an awful lot like a 1924 map of the city Gladwin shared in his office recently. That map of the city before the drainage canals that manipulated the water flow of the Everglades shows a series of settlements along higher ground. Many of them are hot neighborhoods today, including neighborhoods like Miami Shores and Coral Gables that had deed restrictions prohibiting blacks and Jews.

Some of Gladwin’s best-known maps were created for the CLEO Institute, a climate change advocacy group run by Caroline Lewis, an energetic former science teacher who skillfully recruits everyone she encounters into supporting her mission to teach people about global warming.

Lewis leads climate education courses all over South Florida; the city of Fort Lauderdale required all employees, including police officers and trash collectors, to take her training several years ago. The maps are especially helpful in her community climate education programs, which often are paid for with grants from organizations with an interest in helping people be more aware and adaptable to the effects of climate change, including heat waves, more intense tropical storms and, of course, sea-level rise.

Among the maps Lewis likes to share is a multicolored Gladwin creation showing elevation in central Miami. On the flip side are clusters where banks, investors and landlords hold 15 properties or more. Many of the clusters are in areas where the sea level is 9 feet and higher. It doesn’t prove there’s a coordinated effort to buy up property on high ground as a sea-level rise investment strategy, but it does offer evidence that climate gentrification may be among the real estate factors at work in lower-income neighborhoods on high ground in Miami.

Lewis in her climate education work often also shows people a data visualization program developed at FIU called "Eyes on the Rise." It demonstrates how some neighborhoods could be inundated by flooding from sea-level rise in the coming decades. It also allows people to report flooding during extreme events like the fall king tides, said Susan Jacobson, a journalism professor at FIU who helped develop the program.

"It’s a great tool to get people into understanding the potential impact of sea-level rise," Jacobson said. "Because it’s always been something kind of abstract floating around out there that might happen in the future, you can type in your address and you can see it and you can have that ‘holy shit!’ sort of moment."

Lewis has found that when she shows the inundation scenario maps to people in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, their eyes "light up."

"You could just see them going, ‘Oh!’" Lewis said. "Because there’s inundation going north, south, east, west, but there they were on the ridge, and they understood it."

‘They’re already here’

Fabiola Fleuranvil
Fabiola Fleuranvil has joined forces with other young black investors to buy, rehabilitate and sell homes in historically black neighborhoods. She said her group is well aware of the effects of climate change, even if it’s not its primary goal to buy property that is less vulnerable to sea-level rise. | Photo by Erika Bolstad.

They understand it because even if sea-level rise is a challenge to visualize, gentrification and the problems of affordable housing in the city are not.

Marleine Bastien, the founder of Haitian Women of Miami, has seen gentrification firsthand in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Her organization, which advocates for Haitian immigrants, fought in recent years to define the boundaries of Little Haiti on official city neighborhood maps in part so that the people who live there aren’t invisible. Bastien said they feared that if less of the neighborhood is officially named Little Haiti on government maps, it will be easier to displace the Haitian immigrants who settled there and made it the vibrant community it is today. They’d simply be priced out.

"We’re not anti-development, but when you want to wipe out the complete history, the legacy of a group of immigrants?" Bastien said.

"We were left to fend for ourselves in this depressed and drug-infested area," she said. "Now, out of sheer resilience and determination, Little Haiti is this vibrant, culturally interesting, culturally rich neighborhood, now it’s too good for us?"

They’ve seen what happened in Wynwood, the formerly gritty warehouse district to the south that evolved into an arts destination a decade ago. Artists are now priced out of the neighborhood they helped put on the map with their colorful street murals. And speculators have turned their attention to Little Haiti just to the north. Some of it may have been inevitable. But climate change has added another layer of concern, Bastien said.

"They’re buying, they’re buying, they’re buying," she said. "And it’s predicted it’ll be the fastest-gentrified area in the U.S."

Ragasten Paul, who has worked with Bastien, said that developers approach his 85-year-old father at least weekly, in the hopes of buying the modest home he built in the 1970s as a Haitian immigrant. Developers aren’t interested in rehabilitating his father’s home on the short strip of Northeast 58th Street, where houses are about 10 feet above sea level. They want to buy the block and redevelop it.

"All he knows is things are happening around him, and he’s not a part of it," Paul said of his father.

Harewood, a former press man at the Miami Herald who owns businesses and land inland to the west of Little Haiti, said he began fixing up and painting some of his properties to fend off citations by the county’s code enforcement officers. He thinks that by having more appealing-looking properties, it’ll be harder for someone to take his land with eminent domain proceedings. That’s a pattern many people of color have seen before in Miami, one detailed in N.D.B. Connolly’s book about the effect of Jim Crow laws on South Florida, "A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida."

"Development schemes requiring massive displacements, carried out purportedly for the sake of economic growth, tend to target the black and brown poor through dramatic applications of eminent domain or the slow squeeze of gentrification," writes Connolly, a South Florida native and a history professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"They’re already here," Harewood said of developers. He said he believes that’s why his properties get fined.

"That’s why they’re harassing me constantly with code enforcement," he said.

Sea-level rise has only exacerbated the effects of coastal flooding in South Florida. A University of Miami study released in 2016 found that coastal flooding has accelerated; the flooding coincides with an accelerated rate of sea-level rise in South Florida. The average rate of sea-level rise increased by 3 millimeters a year before 2006, and then jumped to 9 millimeters a year on average after 2006. Over the past decade, that’s about 3.5 inches of sea-level rise.

A separate study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, released earlier this year, projected that tidal flooding in East and Gulf coast states will only get worse. By 2045, nearly one-third of the gauges analyzed could see 180 floods a year. That’s 30 years from now, the lifetime of a mortgage.

There’s great fear in local governments about what sea-level rise means for all those mortgage holders who pay taxes. In Coral Gables, the city south of downtown Miami and home to the University of Miami, they look at is as a matter of survival, said Mayor Jim Cason.

Coral Gables went as far last fall as releasing an analysis of how it would pay for infrastructure investment in the face of a shrinking tax base if people leave.

"We’re concerned about it, we’re planning for it, we’re spending money on vulnerability studies trying to know what our vulnerabilities are in terms of our essential infrastructure, and planning to build up and save our communities as long as we can," Cason said.

That time an octopus wound up in a parking garage

Drainage pipes Miami Beach, Fla.
Drainage pipes await installation in Miami Beach. | Photo by Erika Bolstad.

But there’s also an element of denial, even on the part of the organizations that have been working to address global warming and sea-level rise in Florida. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, an organization made up of the four southernmost counties in the state, got its official start in 2010 as an organization aimed at coordinating efforts to curtail emissions and adapt to climate change. The counties, which are heavily dependent on a stable tax base for their survival and success, are reluctant to even acknowledge the potential real estate risks for fear of spooking the very people needed to keep living and paying taxes in the region.

"Southeast Florida’s property market continues to be one of the strongest in the U.S.," notes the compact’s website. "Each and every day, local governments in South Florida are joining forces to plan and invest in adaptive infrastructure to manage the threats of gradual sea level rise. Those same people working to keep the area safe and enjoyable for millions, continue to live in their own homes."

Miami Beach, for example, has begun installing a multibillion-dollar network of pumps to return the floodwater to Biscayne Bay.

But such measures are a generational stopgap, doomed by geology. The porous limestone allows water to seep in from below the earth. In some places, water burbles up from underground, a sort of reverse percolation visible in asphalt parking lots even on sunny days.

Roads flood and seawater overtops sea walls during king tides, the annual extreme tides of autumn. An octopus even ended up in a Miami Beach parking garage during last fall’s king tides.

As a result, people in Florida’s southernmost coastal counties already have more knowledge than average Americans about climate change and see it as a looming crisis. An estimated 76 percent of adults think global warming is happening, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps. That’s 6 points higher than the U.S. average. Most people in South Florida, an estimated 54 percent, think global warming is already harming people in the United States, also 6 points higher than the national estimate.

"People are generally much more aware of it now than they were even a couple more years ago," said Ned Murray, who studies affordable housing as associate director of the Metropolitan Center, also at FIU. "Especially if you’re a homebuyer, you’re aware of it now. It’s in the conversation."

Albert Slap, an environmental attorney, founded Coastal Risk Consulting with former Florida Atlantic University climate scientist Leonard Berry and others. Using Army Corps of Engineers sea-level rise predictions, the company assigns flood scores to properties. Its formula can show how much of a threat sea-level rise poses to a property, giving homeowners, local governments and anyone else who uses the software a realistic picture of their future risk.

Slap sees gentrification as a footnote on multitrillion-dollar real estate issues the region and nation will face in the next decade. There’s no insurance for sea-level rise, he points out. There’s no easy fix if people can’t get mortgages or can’t find a place to live.

"There’s a sea change, no pun intended," Slap said. "People are looking at rising tides and going, ‘What are we going to do?’"

Demographers have also begun thinking about where people will go. A recent study published earlier this month in Nature Climate Change by University of Georgia demographer Mathew Hauer showed that Florida could lose as many as 2.5 million people to sea-level rise by the end of the century. The paper builds on work predicting that, by 2100, as many as 13 million people in the United States could be displaced by sea-level rise.

Keenan thinks sea-level rise could shift populations much sooner. An estimated 175,000 people left Miami-Dade County after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

"It’s not out of the question that Miami Beach loses 20 percent of its population and most of those people go to the mainland," he said. "I’m talking about the next 20 years."

Climate gentrification will only get worse, researchers say. And potential migration patterns will only exacerbate the inequity of sea-level rise, Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who serves as president of the National Academy of Sciences, said at a panel in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

"I worry about, as those who are displaced by sea level displace others, will those others have some place to go?" McNutt said. "I’m worried this domino effect and that it could, actually as the very wealthy who live on the coast displace those inland and they displace those a little more inland, we will have a whole group of people who have no place to go, and that’s going to be a major issue of social unrest.

"There are not going to be easy answers to this," she said.

‘We can’t stop gentrification. But we can participate in it’

Miami Beach
Miami Beach today. Tomorrow, the hot real estate may be much farther inland. | Photo by Daniel Piraino, courtesy of Flickr.

In Miami, Teri Williams, the president of the country’s largest black-owned bank, OneUnited Bank, was recently on the local public radio station, WLRN, talking about the importance of maintaining historically black neighborhoods as spaces for people of color.

Rising tides can lift all boats, as it were, but not if some people are swept away.

"You look all around Miami, and you see these pockets of the black community that are located in prime real estate locations," she said. "And I hate to put it this way, but they’re coming. And I say to our community, ‘I don’t care if you have to buy a hut. Buy something. Buy a lot, buy something in our community. Because "they," the broader community, is coming.’

"We can’t stop gentrification. But we can participate in it. We can ensure that our culture is, I won’t say protected, but is a part of the new things that are going on," she said on air.

Investors like Fabiola Fleuranvil have heard Williams and are acting on her advice. A public relations executive in her early 30s, Fleuranvil had rehabbed and flipped three houses on her own by the time she was 24.

Fleuranvil recently joined forces with other young black investors to buy, rehab and sell homes in historically segregated and mostly black neighborhoods. They’re well aware of the effects of climate change, even if it’s not their primary goal to buy property that’s less vulnerable to sea-level rise. It just so happens that the neighborhoods they’re targeting are on higher ground, Fleuranvil said.

"Climate change or sea-level rise isn’t top of mind for our property search, but we’re very aware that our preferred neighborhoods are on higher ground," Fleuranvil said. "I think location ranks highest … and somewhere along that ranking, in addition to cost, it’s also known that developers are looking inland."

The need for affordable housing is so desperate that they didn’t need to list their first project in the Brownsville neighborhood. It sold to a family enrolled in a county housing program to help get low-income first-time homebuyers into homes.

Fleuranvil and others say that much of the new development in Miami fails to serve the people who already live there, only exacerbating gentrification. It’s for foreign investors and speculators who are looking at quick returns, not schoolteachers and firefighters.

Their investments are, when possible, all-black projects. Their money is in a black-owned bank, and they try to hire black contractors. Their goal is to reinvest their profits into additional projects, Fleuranvil said, including commercial real estate in the vicinity of their housing investments.

"When gentrification comes in, the entire community should prosper," she said. "It doesn’t mean that you can’t develop and revitalize, but it means being sensitive to that."

It may be that developers have made the same sort of calculations as Fleuranvil and her cohorts, said the Metropolitan Center’s Murray. Or it may be that land is simply running out in Miami’s hot real estate market.

"It might be a little of both," he added. "But it’s certainly happening."

Few developers are willing to talk. Keenan thinks it may be like the development of Walt Disney World in Central Florida: Keeping quiet keeps prices down.

Real estate investor Peter Ehrlich, who has been buying property in higher-ground neighborhoods since the 1990s, long before sea-level rise was an issue, began buying property in places like Miami’s Design District and Little Haiti north of the downtown Miami because he couldn’t afford to invest on Miami Beach.

He’s not convinced climate change has made its way into real estate pricing, though, and he doesn’t see sea-level rise influencing shorter-term investors or speculators.

"Over the last few years, people have talked about the long-term advantages of owning property on high ground," Ehrlich said. "But I am not quite sure that benefit is factored into the price of those properties."

That said, he knows he’s poised to take advantage of it.

"Those of us who bought real estate on higher ground, mostly because we could not afford waterfront property, realize that long term our sites will not be overrun by advancing seas," Ehrlich said. "At least, not as fast as other areas will be overrun."