The wealthy are hoarding livable homes as climate change makes land uninhabitable

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BY ANGELY MERCADO (Massive Science, June 23, 2021) – To the science-minded person, it can be comforting to divide humanity into sane, rational climate change believers (like themselves) and dangerously deluded climate change deniers. Unfortunately, as psychologists who study climate anxiety are wont to point out, in practice most people are somewhere in between — trying to ignore the looming new reality just enough to continue on with their lives and business. That kind of short-term thinking is on full display here in Miami Beach, where spring breakers frolic despite coronavirus, and billions of dollars are sunk annually into developing new hotels that will be uninhabitable, a foot underwater, in our lifetimes. To live in Miami with the realities of climate change in mind, is to see everything through disaster goggles — the myopic thinking of the market at its most disastrous. You walk through America’s great party city as the ultimate vibe-killer — the person who spoils the party by asking when everyone is thinking of leaving.

Xavier Cortada has had a bad case of this for a while now. The Miami artist visited Antarctica in 2006, and has since felt like a prophet of doom. “I got a perspective on what’s really happening to Antarctica, and what was going to happen to Miami,” the artist recalls. “They gave me pieces of the ice that threatened to drown my city.” He pictured the Catholic church and the schools he attended, everything that he loved, a sunken civilization. This may sound like hyperbole, but according to research projections by Climate Central, if we don’t find a way to stem the tides, these streets will be “waterways” by 2100 — waterways from the glamorous downtown Brickell area to Little Havana, roofs jutting out of the ocean.

Always adept at hedging, the market is starting to anticipate this slow retreat from the coast. Real estate developers who once priced people out of beach neighborhoods are setting their sights on the places they displaced them to — and are now starting to develop elevated neighborhoods like Little Haiti that, until recently, weren’t desirable to the beach-bound jetsetter. Local researchers have coined a term for this incipient trend: “climate gentrification.” It demarcates a new process of reappraising where it will be safe to live in the future. It foreshadows a struggle where climate refugees are an internal issue as much as an international one — where rich people take for the hills, pushing poor people out to persist on the margins of disaster. If you look closely enough, you’ll see it happening all across America.

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Miami is at the vanguard of this development because of its precarious setting and its reputation as a developer’s paradise. The city is built on a bed of porous, soft, sandy, flood-prone limestone (appropriately called Miami limestone) most of it only a few feet above sea level. Water easily seeps through the holes in the limestone, like a “reverse percolation.” This combination of spongy ground and high rises has made it the “most vulnerable coastal city worldwide,” which is more a measurement of the amount of real estate money on the line than the human toll of rising seas (which will likely be felt much more strongly in poor coastal cities in South East Asia). By 2040, more than $3 billion dollars of property here could be lost to flooding.

City officials are torn between their long-term responsibility for residents’ safety and their economic dependence on booming waterfront real estate. These competing interests have led them to offer optimistic forecasts about the city’s fate, despite climate projections that suggest a sea level increase of 3 feet by 2060, and the regular occurrence of hurricanes previously considered “once-in-a-century.” While climate experts suggest encouraging people to evacuate future flood zones, local officials prefer not to scare off homebuyers and investors. Their suggested strategies (derided by a climate expert as “just enough to reassure developers that Miami’s safe enough to build in the near-term”) include building more houses on stilts, raising the ground under new developments, and building much more densely in the few elevated neighborhoods in Miami.

These piecemeal strategies are developer-friendly and do not address what will happen to existing housing — or what this will mean for residents who can’t afford to build a new house (or who won’t be able to afford flood insurance when it gets prohibitively expensive). More than half of Miami’s affordable housing stock is currently situated below the city’s average elevation of seven feet above sea level. Already, cheaper waterfront units are flooding regularly. Residents of these houses resort to stacking bricks around their homes in hopes of preventing the water from damaging their homes. As newer, wealthier residents raise housing prices, Miamians living in lower elevations have struggled to find affordable units further inland.

Lower income communities in elevated neighborhoods are feeling the other side of this squeeze. Little Haiti sits on “the ridge,” an area in Miami that has above average elevation, about 11 feet above sea level. This increasingly-popular enclave is dotted with bright murals celebrating the longtime Haitian residents and the life they created in this neighborhood over the years. Caribbean immigrants settled here in the mid-20th century in response to red-lining and segregation, and are now finding their homes and businesses displaced by a rush of new commercial and housing developments.

Developers in this neighborhood are doing their best to push low income renters out, with a tried-and-true combination of neglect and incentives. New investors are swooping in. “Developers are not stupid, they know that climate change is real and they want to protect their future investments,” says Adrian Madriz, executive director at Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing,. ”[A landowner may] actually sit on the property if they have no intention of developing… So there’s a lot of slum and blight in the neighborhood.”

To rich people, this kind of displacement may not seem so tragic, but to communities in Miami once known as exiles it comes as another displacement. Xavier Cortada worries that Miami will soon be whitewashed of its unique Caribbean culture. “There’s this reality of communal living at the core… and that that group of people can disappear. And no one will ever take note that it happened,” he says. “So the very fabric that has made Miami all these years, is about to become something new, like a Las-Vegas-meets-Monte-Carlo type thing.”

Cortada does what he can to raise awareness in his community. In 2018, he created the “Underwater HOA,” a participatory art project that encouraged Miami homeowners to place a yard sign that showed how many feet the Atlantic Ocean must rise before their property is underwater. For some homeowners it was less than 10 feet. Sea levels around Miami are expected to rise an average five to six feet by 2100 city-wide, and up to 230 feet if all glaciers and ice caps on Earth melted. Cortada says his efforts have been a way for him to come to terms with the reality of how his city, alongside much of South Florida, will probably be wiped off a map by the end of the century. Thinking and creating art around these scenarios has connected him to the pain his own family and community felt when they were exiled from their home, only a couple hundred miles from here, in the Caribbean, decades ago.