“In May 2017, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued an ominous warning about one of the world’s largest crises:
“Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats — from poverty to displacement to conflict … [It] is an unprecedented and growing threat. The arguments for action are clear. So are the immense opportunities for peace and prosperity if we act quickly and decisively.”
In Miami and Miami Beach, along with other surrounding municipalities, few days go by where one is not reminded of climate change’s immediate effects. Whether it is sea-level rise, scorching temperatures, or power outages, the area seems constantly under threat.
Dr. Cheryl Holder, a professor of medicine at Florida International University and a founder of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, believes that climate change is contributing to the elevated cases of allergies and respiratory ailments that she and fellow physicians have noticed recently in their patients.
But another threat associated with climate change, and one with which Miami is grappling — whether it’s perceived or actual has yet to be determined — is displacement of the city’s most vulnerable and predominantly minority residents to what some experts have dubbed “climate gentrification.”
The theory behind this phenomenon is that developers are seeing properties on higher elevation as potential growth spots for prime real estate. These properties are less likely to be engulfed by flooding or other major weather event-related damages, especially when compared to their oceanfront counterparts. Thus, neighborhoods that were previously considered by the development community as undesirable are increasingly seen as hot commodities, leading real estate investors to buy out longtime residents.
In a 2018 Harvard University study that looked at 100,000 single-family homes across Miami, homes that are on higher ground tend to rise in value at a faster clip than homes along the oceanfront. One of the study’s co-authors, Jesse Keenan, predicted that because of this trend, real estate speculation is bound to increase in these areas.
As an example, a home in Little Haiti, an inland and elevated neighborhood, saw its real estate values double. In that neighborhood, storefronts that once served home to longtime local businesses now are vacant, presumably because of skyrocketing rents.
In recent years, Islamic Relief USA has responded to several areas hard hit by major weather events, including in Florida, where Hurricane Irma touched ground in 2017. The organization’s Disaster Response Team noticed that the residents most affected were minority and with limited incomes. Now, those same residents likely will face a sociological riptide stemming from an overheated climate and real-estate market.
Having affordable housing is essential, since Miami and surrounding municipalities already have a formidable problem of income inequality. While images of lavish beachfront homes and towers come to mind when one hears about Miami, an image no doubt perpetuated by the media, Miami-Dade, has some 530,000 people living in poverty. Some 60 percent of the county’s 2.7 million residents have trouble making ends meet, according to a 2015 county study. In the state as a whole, 52 percent of Florida households have less than $1,000 in savings.
In addition, Miami has one of the highest, if not the highest percentage, of renters for a major U.S. city. Renters are less likely to have savings that could help them transition to a new community. This is particularly the case in working class and poor neighborhoods of Miami. An Urban Institute report found that more than three quarters of the population in those areas are renters. They include Allapattah (80 percent), Downtown (76 percent), Little Haiti (77 percent), Little Havana (87 percent), Overtown (85 percent), and Wynwood (79 percent).
Regarding Allapattah, the report stated that the neighborhood “may be at risk of losing its Dominican community heritage, multigenerational (low and middle-income) families, and affordable housing.”
Studies have found that Miami-based developers have huge sway on housing policy, a dynamic that’s unlikely to change in the short-term. Keeping that reality in mind, the people most affected need to find ways to work with the developers. This includes groups like Struggle For Miami’s Sustainable Housing (SMASH) and Miami Millennial Investment Group (MMI).
As a recent National Community Reinvestment Corporation report recommended, “local advocates and officials should pursue policies that encourage investment while promoting the ability of existing residents to stay and benefit from revitalization.”
If that starts to happen, there is hope that strong, longtime and vibrant communities can remain intact and not be priced out.
Syed M. Hassan is the public affairs specialist for Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit humanitarian and advocacy organization with offices in Florida that works to alleviate poverty in more than 40 countries.”
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