As Climate Change Hits Miami, Only The Rich Will Be Able To Protect Themselves

Myesha Pugh fled the apartment complex where she spent the first 30 years of her life after an insect wormed into her grandmother’s ear in the middle of the night. “My dad took her to the hospital, and the hospital retrieved a live cockroach,” she recounts with disgust.

Conditions at the multi-family complex in the heart of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, where rents hovered around $500 a month, quickly deteriorated after the original owner died and left it to her children. “I personally think they’re waiting for the city to condemn the building,” says Pugh. 

Miami has a housing crisis, and Pugh is one of its victims. Soaring rents have led to a shortage of affordable housing, which in turn has led to a surge in slum conditions. For some owners, allowing apartments to disintegrate is pure neglect; for others, it’s a strategy to turf out tenants to make it easier to sell up. But whatever the reason, when residents like Pugh are forced to leave their rundown apartments, many find it impossible to afford another home in the neighborhood.

Overtown, along with other downtown Miami neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color, is losing affordable housing and rapidly gentrifying. But gentrification in these areas isn’t just being driven by market forces. Climate change is also having an impact.

As rising sea levels visibly affect the wealthier, lower-lying areas of South Florida with dramatic and costly sunny-day flooding, prices are starting to rise farther inland, in the neighborhoods that tourists don’t see. Working-class places like Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City were created by redlining, a historically racist policy that denied mortgages to people of color outside of certain neighborhoods. They are now in rapid transition. And in Miami, those areas just happen to be on the high ground.  

Miami’s metro area has 44 percent of its population living at or around the poverty line. Wages are some of the lowest of any major city in the country, 68 percent of inhabitants are renters, and rental prices are the highest relative to income in the U.S. 

The sharp increase in prices is due to a tangle of factors: shortsighted urban planning, underinvestment in affordable housing, and a lack of regulation thanks to the outsized influence of developers.

But climate change is edging onto this list. High ground is slowly becoming more valuable, according to an April study authored by Harvard University academics and published in Environmental Research Letters, which called the phenomenon “climate gentrification”.

It’s going to be pretty much impossible to keep the lowest-lying areas of the city viable in a much more watery future, says Jesse Keenan, a professor of architecture at Harvard’s graduate school of design and an author of the study. Given the reality of sea level rise, “it’s not brain surgery to see that there’s not enough public money to extend a universal guarantee for the resilience of Miami’s infrastructure and the delivery of urban services,” he said.

Investors are starting to take note. “Clients asking about [sea level rise] used to be once a month, then once a week, now it’s virtually every meeting,” explains Marc Singer, founding partner of Singer Xenos Schecter Sosler, a wealth management firm that focuses on South Florida.

Singer believes that rising sea levels are going to amplify the already intense swings of the local real estate market, and he’s advising his clients, who are typically worth $3 million to $5 million, to limit their exposure to waterfront real estate.

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