Miami is the poster child for the future of coastal cities in a world where the climate is changing rapidly. Many areas of the city regularly experience shin-high water on sunny days at high tide – and sea level rise has barely begun. The waters around South Florida have risen just four inches in the past 25 years, but scientists expect they’ll rise up to 10 inches more in the next decade.
There’s more at risk than just the city’s dry land, though. Scientists and urban planners are concerned that rising floodwaters could push a new wave of gentrification in Miami and in cities around the world.
The reason is that urban neighborhoods that don’t experience flooding are desirable – maybe not in the same way as having nearby public transportation, access to good schools, or the myriad of other drivers of gentrification, but desirable all the same. So, the price of land and homes in areas that don’t flood (or at least flood less frequently) may shoot up as demand increases and supply diminishes. At the same time, homes in particularly flood-prone areas will decrease until they are all but worthless.
A recent study from Harvard University found exactly that pattern occurring in Miami. Looking across the city at more than 100,000 homes, the study found that increasing elevation above sea level correlated closely with increasing prices over time. That means that homeowners, developers, and investors are slowly moving their money to higher ground, driving up prices in the process.
This elevation-based home pricing can be seen almost in real time in places like Little Haiti, an ethnic enclave on high ground on the inland side of Miami. There, one relatively modest home has nearly doubled in value in the past two years. At the same time, investors are buying up any available homes in the neighborhood and driving out long-time residents who rely on cheap rental properties. The same squeeze is being felt in other low-income, high-elevation neighborhoods like Little Havana and Liberty City.
To make matters worse, the majority of Miami’s population has nowhere to go if the sea moves inward and inland home prices rise in response. More than 60 percent of Miami’s population struggles to make ends meet, according to a 2015 government report. And many of the neighborhoods hosting the city’s poorest residents are found at its highest elevations, given that property closer to the beach fetched a higher premium until recently.
Even the city’s efforts to combat rising sea levels run the risk of encouraging gentrification in certain neighborhoods. On streets where the city has installed pumps to move floodwaters back into Biscayne Bay and behind the fortified seawalls the city is constructed, it’s likely that home prices will increase relative to the surrounding areas. While many of the homes in these beachfront neighborhoods already sport high price tags, the small nudge in prices caused by flood mitigation could have a big impact on renters. As early as 2016, the Miami Herald sounded the alarm that wages for service workers in beachfront communities weren’t keeping up with increasing rent prices.
The problem of climate-induced gentrification isn’t unique to Miami, either. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City issued city-wide flood risk maps. Five years later, the value of homes in areas designated high-risk is discounted by an estimated eight percent compared to the rest of the city. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina paved the way for the displacement of as much as 10 percent of the city’s low-income African American community as home prices shot up in areas unaffected by flooding. And in Los Angeles, the increasing risk of wildfires as summer temperatures increase is already shifting the value of homes around the city, with the potential for displacement of historically African American and Hispanic communities.
What can cities do to stop the slow, but seemingly inevitable redistribution of its communities in response to climate change? Miami, the first city to be undergoing climate gentrification on a wide scale, is also leading efforts to prevent its low-income communities from being broken up. The city launched an investigation this year to determine which neighborhoods are facing the most intensive pressure from real estate developers and to identify solutions such as low-income housing, rent control, and community land trusts.
The challenges are likely to be significant – no matter what interventions Miami makes, its residents will have to move as the floodwaters continue to encroach. And while Miami and other cities can implement progressive policies to protect their residents, past experience with urban growth has demonstrated that few cities know how to effectively keep home prices from skyrocketing and driving out lifelong residents.
Still, it’s a positive sign that Miami is acknowledging the looming climate migration happening within the city’s bounds. While gentrification is already happening, the city still has time to get out in front of the worst of the new wave of development pressure. Just as important, Miami’s study and resulting policies could set the stage for cities around the US to implement their own programs to slow the pace of gentrification, even as climate change continues to accelerate.