Proposed Miami-Dade Property Buyouts Come To Unexpected Places
Properties slated for buyouts due to repetitive flooding in Miami-Dade extend miles inland. This is due to secondary impacts of sea level rise.
When Idalmis Cordero and her family moved into their brand new home last year, they knew it was in a flood zone. It was not a new concept for Cordero, who used to live near the edge of the Everglades near Coral Way and Southwest 157th Avenue.
What she didn’t know was that the property directly behind her house is one of ten properties slated to be bought out by Miami-Dade County because of repetitive flooding, using federal funds the state of Florida received after Hurricane Irma.
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“I know that I was gonna be in a flood zone because when we purchased insurance, we know the elevation certificate says that we were in a flood zone,” she said. “Now this is a little bit like 'Hmmm. Was it that bad?'”
Cordero’s new home is in the Tamiami neighborhood of west Miami-Dade County, about a mile and a half northwest of Florida International University’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus.
The geographic location of her home is an indicator of the seemingly unlikely places where government buyouts are happening in Miami-Dade County. Unlike buyouts in the Florida Keys, where all the properties are within a short walk to the shoreline, nine out of the 10 proposed buyouts in Miami-Dade lie west of South Dixie Highway, the main thoroughfare that runs north to south along South Florida’s coastal ridge.
Properties slated for buyouts due to repetitive flooding in Miami-Dade extend miles inland. The home behind Cordero, for instance, is west of the Florida Turnpike. Two homes in the agricultural Redland community in southwest Miami-Dade are slated for buyouts, according to documents obtained by WLRN.
In Tamiami, Cordero assessed the realization that her back-door neighbors could soon receive a government buyout. She walked to the back fence line of her property.
“The lot behind our house is a lot lower than where we’re sitting. When they constructed these homes here they made them all a few — several feet as you can see — several feet above above the lot behind us,” she said. “They’re all sitting much lower, which makes sense now that I know it’s because it’s a much heavier flood zone.”
The county required all the new homes on Cordero’s block be constructed at a raised elevation, using fill-in dirt. New drainage infrastructure can be seen lining the street, leading to the land that could soon be purchased.
In documents, the county says that once it buys out the property, it could make the lot into a place where water can pool when it rains, and possibly a public park for when it’s not raining.
“That would be nice because I do have four kids, and that would be great to have a park directly behind us,” said Cordero.
Studies conducted by Miami-Dade have shown that increased inland flooding is indirectly tied to rising sea levels. As the sea levels rise, it pushes up the groundwater levels miles away from the shoreline, thanks to the porous limestone that South Florida is built upon.
This means that when it rains, the water has nowhere to drain to and the result is flooding — like a cup filled past the brim. Areas that were previously drained by the existing canal network “may be more difficult to protect from flooding” because of this shifting reality, noted a 2016 study for Miami-Dade County’s sea level rise task force.
Several of the areas impacted by rising groundwater levels are in western Miami-Dade.
“These are very low areas, and they have water management and they can control to some extent, but look at what happened in May in the Doral area. They had flooding. The system doesn’t have the capacity to drain during a heavy unusual rain event,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, the director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University. “If the water table is high to begin with, then you’re gonna have flooding because there is no drainage capacity to handle that kind of rain.”
Some areas have received concentrated help. The South Florida Water Management District conducted a large project to help with stormwater drainage in Sweetwater. But other parts of western Miami-Dade have high concentrations of properties that have faced repeated flooding, according to proprietary Federal Emergency Management Agency data that is accessible to Obeysekera.
“There’s a lot more than I expected,” said Obeysekera. “In order for the county to make a difference in buying these out, they will have to buy a lot more to do something with it.”
The Miami-Dade properties are not bunched up together, making it more difficult to do something with the reclaimed land, said Obeysekera. Elsewhere in the state, buyout applications have included tracts of land strung together.
In Brevard County's Palm Bay, for example, 13 properties on the same street are slated for potential buyouts, according to records reviewed by WLRN.
The federal dollars for the buyouts come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a way to help people move away from areas where it might not make sense to rebuild. For the federal government, it's cheaper to simply purchase properties than to continue providing financial assistance to homeowners after extreme weather events.
For homeowners it can be an enticing prospect: the buyouts are offered at regular market rates for the homes, even after repeated flooding could bring down the value of a property.
In 2019, Miami-Dade County sent mailers to homeowners in some areas asking if they wanted to get bought out.
The applications were bundled into a single countywide application, which was then sent to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The department manages the Rebuild Florida Voluntary Home Buyout Program.
In December, the state approved more than $44 million in property buyouts across the state, using the federal dollars.
In order for the county to make a difference in buying these out, they will have to buy a lot more to do something with it.
None of the homeowners in Miami-Dade County have gotten the buyout money yet. The board of county commissioners needs to hold a formal vote to finalize the process, a vote that is expected in November, staff told WLRN.
WLRN visited a number of the homes that could get bought out in Miami-Dade County before the pandemic struck. Property owners who applied for buyouts declined to comment on this story.
One property owner, in the Golden Glades neighborhood of North Dade, followed a reporter around the neighborhood with his truck while he spoke to neighbors about flooding in the area.
Some neighbors expressed worry about what the potential buyouts could mean for their property values. Others were not worried about it.
“It never gets to the house, and we have the canal right there,” said Alex Abou, who lives across a small canal from another property on the list in Golden Glades.
The county says the property across the way repeatedly floods from the canal in extreme rain events, and proposes to turn the property into a public park with water access.
The house looks like it’s been neglected for years, even though it is occupied. Vines grow across the walls, as chipped paint and other issues go all the way to the roof level, signs of neglect that go beyond the flooding.
Nevertheless, the county estimated the total value of the potential buyout at $432,210.
“Maybe he want to sell his property and nobody want to pay him a half million for that side, is the logic. But we on this side we don’t got any problem with the canal,” said Abou. “I don’t know which problem he can have.”
Abou said he was not aware of the existence of the buyout program.
Maydel Bretol’s brand new home is just east of the 826, directly across the highway from the Mall of the Americas. Her next door neighbor’s home was built in 1975, and is one of the properties slated for a potential buyout.
“I knew they were going to sell the house but I didn’t know it was the government that was going to buy it,” said Bretol. “It kind of scares me, because if they buy it and then just leave the lot empty maybe it could affect my property value. We just finished this house a year ago. So, it does scare me a little.”
When they were filling in the dirt to raise the property for construction, Bretol said her neighbor complained about it.
“She said ‘if you guys raise your property, all of that water is just going to go downhill and come of here and make it flood over here, and it already floods over here,’” said Bretol, paraphrasing the conversation. “But I had to fill it in to get a building permit.”
Building new construction next door to homes that are slated for buyouts presents some prickly questions, said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center where she studies property buyouts due to climate change.
“If you’re buying out flood-prone homes, but at the same time you’re building more homes in the flood plain, have you actually reduced the overall risk of the community, or have you just shifted it to a new place?” she said.
Even though most of the land closest to the coast in Miami-Dade County belongs to municipalities like Miami, Miami Beach, Aventura and Cutler Bay, not a single municipality put in an application for buyouts in Miami-Dade County.
Only the county did, so all the properties are in unincorporated Miami-Dade. By default, these tend to be inland.
Siders said this dynamic fits along with national trends she has identified through her research.
“Buyouts tend to happen in coastal counties, but slightly inland, not just along the beach,” she said. “Potential reasons the buyouts might happen more often inland than on the coast are: Coastal homes are more expensive, coastal cities need the property tax revenue — they’re worried about having that economic benefit. They’re worried about scaring off other real estate investors or development or other economic benefits. They’re worried to look as though they’re shrinking.”
The logic has a uniquely South Florida twist to it. The further inland you go in Miami-Dade, the wetter it gets. Homes in western Miami-Dade have been built atop drained wetlands, all the way up to the edge of the remaining Everglades. That makes the properties vulnerable to water from multiple angles.
“Disaster experts don’t use the words ‘natural disaster’ anymore for this exact reason,” said Siders. “The reason these events become disasters is all of the social, political and engineering decisions that we have made in the past, and sometimes continue to make.”
"We have put people at risk," she said.