Climate gentrification: Rising seas lift home prices in drier, cheaper neighborhoods like Miami’s Little Haiti

Louis Rosemond lived in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, for 30 years, but was evicted in 2016 when his landlord sold the apartment building to developers who are preparing to build high-rise, high-priced condominiums on the property. Rosemond, pictured in his new apartment in Opa Locka, Florida, on April 19, 2022, says developers are destroying his old neighborhood.

This story ran in the Miami Herald print edition June 5, 2022, and the Miami Herald online June 6.

By Charlize Gaudiello, Sofia Palomino, Eric Parrilla, and Anthony Vidal

For 30 years, Louis Rosemond lived in a historic neighborhood of Miami that has become home to generations of Haitian refugees. The internationally-recognized artist moved from his native Haiti to Little Haiti where, surrounded by Haitian restaurants, churches, stores, and friends, he dedicated his career to painting the stories of his community and his culture.

All that changed when he returned home after undergoing prostate surgery and found his landlord hammering shut the door to his 60th Street apartment. The entire complex, where mostly elderly and disabled residents lived, had been bought by a developer who planned to tear it down for a larger, more expensive property.

Rosemond called the city in a panic, pleading for help for him and his neighbors.

“They say, ‘Well, the owner say move, try to move,’” Rosemond said.

Stories like Rosemond’s have become increasingly common as sea levels continue to rise due to climate change. While the beaches of the South Florida coastline have long been the most appealing for luxury developers, that coastline has become unstable. June 24 will mark one year since a condominium collapsed in Surfside, Florida, killing 98 people, and at least three other buildings have been condemned since.

That has led developers to turn their attention inland to minority communities such as Little Haiti and Overtown that, although long neglected by city leaders, are suddenly attractive because they sit on higher ground. The result has been what experts refer to as climate gentrification: when affluent groups move into an area naturally more resistant to the effects of climate change, raising prices and driving out low-income residents who lived there before.

“It’s all predatory right now,” said Jessica Saint-fleur, member engagement manager of Engage Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing civic participation among young Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

The sea level in South Florida is expected to rise between 10 and 17 inches by 2040, according to several estimates compiled by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. But the effects are already being felt.

Part of the reason that the Champlain Towers building fell in Surfside last year was that the structure had suffered damage from long-term exposure to salt water, according to a report produced by a grand jury convened in the wake of the collapse. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, government officials vowed to make sweeping changes to avoid a repeat.

They ordered immediate inspections of buildings along the coastline and found more than 300 construction and safety violations, according to the Miami Beach Building Department. At least three buildings were condemned, the latest coming on April 4 when North Miami Beach declared the Bayview 60 Homes as “structurally unsafe,” forcing all its residents to evacuate. That came nine months after the 10-story Crestview Towers suffered a similar fate in North Miami Beach.

Little Haiti development drives up cost of living

For luxury developers, the hassle of increased scrutiny on building codes and structural risks of building on the coast have caused them to move towards higher-altitude, inland neighborhoods.

For residents of those neighborhoods, the development of high-end properties raises property values, increasing mortgages and rents, further exacerbating the housing affordability crisis that already exists. In the past year, the median rent in the Miami area jumped 55% to $2,929, the highest increase in the country, according to a report released by Realtor.com in March.

In Little Haiti, a bevy of luxury development projects are either in planning or already completed:

  • Pending city approval, Magic City Innovation District would include 2,630 residential units in high-rise apartments, an array of hotels, and extensive retail space;
  • Sabal Palm Village would replace the 512-unit, low-income, residential community called Design Place with high-rise apartments, office, retail and a hotel;
  • Soleste Grand Central, a recently constructed luxury high-rise in Overtown, opened last December;
  • Block 55, a multi-use “premiere” development that will include 1.4 million square feet of condos, retail and office space, is under construction.

Despite the projects’ risk of increasing the cost of housing, city officials support them, saying that they will include affordable housing and rejuvenate neighborhoods. To help accomplish that goal, the city created the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust to support revitalization efforts in the neighborhood, which could include job training and affordable housing. In early March, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced that the Innovation District’s developers had donated $3 million to the trust, the first part of a $31 million commitment.

Had investors not donated to the trust, current Little Haiti businesses and residents “would have gotten nothing,” Suarez said.

For longtime residents such as Rosemond, the investors’ money is not nearly enough to help community members relocate.

“We need more like $31 billion,” Rosemond said.

Miami story harbinger for what’s to come

Tisha Holmes, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University, said that Florida is simply foreshadowing what will soon happen to low-income and communities of color in coastal cities all around the world.

Holmes, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, witnessed the impacts of climate change firsthand when she returned to her home village during a research trip for her dissertation in 2012. The rising sea had eroded everything in its way: stores, houses, even a cemetery.

“We're not necessarily talking about this in theory,” Holmes said, “It is happening right now.”

While some will be forced out by rising waters, others will be unable to recover in the wake of more frequent natural disasters, as has already been seen following Hurricanes Katrina in the southeast and Maria in Puerto Rico.

As in Miami, many climate-resilient properties are fast becoming unaffordable as developers scramble to invest in higher ground.

That’s what’s happening in Kailua on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where residents live on higher ground overlooking the coast. Estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict it will take seven feet of sea level rise before the Pacific Ocean reaches the homes and businesses of the city.

That has made Kailua an attractive spot for developers, and a difficult one for low-income people to move into. In 2020, a plan for affordable housing units, named the Kawainui Street Apartments, was rejected by the Honolulu City Council after more than 1,200 residents signed a petition opposing the project.
The developer of the project and some members of the council lamented that Tongans, Marshallese, Samoans, Vietnamese, American Indians, and Native Hawaiians, who are the most likely to live in poverty, were running out of places to live.

“Kailua has changed and will continue to gentrify without taking bold action to accommodate its workforce and lower income residents,” Makani Maeva, director of the Kawainui project, wrote in a letter to Honolulu's city council.

For low-income communities that already suffer from the structurally racist policies that have led to inferior education, transportation and healthcare, as well as poorer mental and physical health, being forced out of affordable housing is even harder to recover from. Most are left with little to no ability to respond or recover.

“The goal is to build the resiliency of a community to be able to adapt and to respond to a lot of the disaster that is going to come,” said Dejah Powell, structured team coordinator of the youth-led climate advocacy group Sunrise Movement.

For many communities, that goal is still a long way off.

In Little Haiti, fight to preserve culture continues

Rosemond, the artist evicted from Little Haiti, is simply trying to hold onto what’s left of his dwindling community.

Rosemond is now settled in a new apartment in the city of Opa-Locka, miles away from Little Haiti. There, he continues to paint, his walls filled with the vibrant scenes of his native Haiti and his adopted home of Little Haiti.

He knows the fight against the oncoming developers is an uphill battle, but believes that the spirit of Little Haiti will endure, even if the buildings and the people who made it are cast aside. There will always be “some street corner in Little Haiti” where the community’s culture exists, Rosemond said.
“We not going to lose Little Haiti forever,” he said. “The generations pass, the culture is a legacy.”

Charlize Gaudiello is a 10th grade student at Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu; Miami-area students Sofia Palomino, Eric Parrilla and Anthony Vidal are 11th grade students at Miami Lakes Educational Center and Coral Reef Senior High School. They were participants in YMG’s reporting workshop on the impacts of climate change in spring of 2022.