As Seas Rise, Miami’s Black Communities Fear Displacement From The High Ground
Most Friday nights, a small street orchestra of Haitian men parades through Little Haiti playing handmade horns and drums in traditional rara style. The impromptu procession draws neighbors into the streets, where they dance well into the night.
Until a year ago, Louis Rosemont, 61, could hear the infectious rhythms from his small apartment. When he closed his eyes he felt as if he was transported back to his native Haiti.
“We have our very own rara band,” said Rosemont with unmistakable pride. He's a fixture in the neighborhood, usually seen wearing his signature cowboy hat and a freshly-pressed button down shirt. “We have everything you need here in Little Haiti.”
He still talks about Little Haiti as his neighborhood in present tense, even though he now lives in a neighborhood in North Miami-Dade. The apartment building where he used to live is now an empty lot with a for sale sign on it.
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The Little Haiti he knows, the one built by working class Haitian immigrants, is rapidly changing. In the last few years, the neighborhood has seen a swell of speculation and development projects that will change the landscape of the predominantly low-income black community. Proximity to Miami’s urban core and cheap land compared to the rest of the city is driving much of those changes. And with the undeniable threat of sea level rise, the neighborhood’s high elevation is becoming a key selling point.
A new billion-dollar development highlights the project’s resilience to sea level rise in official documents that point out that its location in Little Haiti will make it less prone to flooding. A study commissioned by the city recommended that there should be a focus on building in “naturally resilient” high-elevation neighborhoods, which is where predominantly black inland communities like Little Haiti are located. And speculators buying up property have also taken notice—one LLC with two properties in the neighborhood is aptly named “Premium Elevation.”
Little Haiti’s elevation is 7 feet above sea level with pockets in the neighborhood that go as high as 14 feet above sea level. By comparison, Miami Beach is about 4 feet above sea level.
A building boom is happening all over Miami, including in low-lying areas, but some experts say sea level rise is speeding up gentrification in high-elevation communities that historically have seen very little investment from the outside.
The “climate gentrification” theory was put into sharp focus by Harvard researcher Jesse Keenan, who looked at how single family homes in Miami-Dade County’s higher elevation neighborhoods were gaining value while lower elevation properties seemed to be underperforming since 2000.
Keenan hypothesized that, as more consumers choose to avoid the risks and nuisance of flooding, gentrification in high- elevation communities will accelerate.
“That acceleration is really critical and I think this is a phenomena we see with climate change at large,” he said. “It exposes lots of other parallel challenges and structural fissures in society.”
For the people who called Little Haiti home for decades, like Rosemont, all they know is long-time residents are being priced out.
“We have some developers come into Little Haiti, we cannot afford nothing in there. The rent is so expensive, so everything is very bad,” he said.
About a year ago, Rosemont was standing under a tree with a handful of his neighbors, who lived in a small two-story apartment building on 59 Street and Northeast First Avenue. They all had identical eviction letters; their landlord had plans to demolish the building.
“There’s nothing else we can afford in Little Haiti,” said Rosemont at the time. He gets by on his monthly social security check and the occasional sale of one of his paintings. He was splitting his $700 a month rent with a roommate.
Little Haiti was one of the few places left in Miami where renters could find a place for under $1,000, something known in the housing industry as “naturally occurring affordable housing,” or low rent that isn’t
government subsidized. Rosemont quickly found that getting another place close by in that price range was not possible for him anymore.
He now rents a room inside of someone’s home in North Miami Beach. Everyday he catches a bus— a 45-minute ride— to Little Haiti and spends time in the neighborhood he thought would be always be his home.
“I [sit] down in the Caribbean Marketplace, listen to the music, talk to my friends,” Rosemont said. “We have Ti Georges Café, sometimes I drink a cup of coffee, I drink Haitian soda.”
The now empty lot, where Rosemont’s apartment building used to stand, is just one block away from the site of the Magic City Innovation District, a billion dollar project that will span over 17 acres, with plans for co-working spaces, luxury highrises and hotels.
Initially, the developers said they would include affordable and workforce housing in their plan, but that idea was scrapped before the project was voted on by Miami’s city commision. Instead Magic City agreed to contribute $31 million into a community trust for Little Haiti.
Magic City held a series of town halls to talk about how the project will be beneficial for Little Haiti before it was given the final approval from the commision. The developers were met with long lines of residents and activists who questioned if the plan would actually benefit the residents of Little Haiti, most of whom earn less than $30,000 a year.
“We understand not everyone is always going to be happy, there will be pros and cons to everything, but it’s always great to hear the response from the community,” said Max Sklar, one of the developers, after one of those meetings during the summer. “ We take that to heart.”
Magic City did not respond to follow up requests for an interview with WLRN.
The controversial project is a Special Area Plan (SAP), a City of Miami designation that gives developers with nine contiguous acres of space permission to build denser and higher structures than allowed in the zoning codes. In exchange, developers are expected to provide public amenities like parks.
In documents submitted to the city, Magic City developers noted Little Haiti’s elevation is an added benefit for the real estate project that will be built out over 15 years. A topography map included in their application shows Little Haiti’s high elevation coded in brown and other low-lying neighborhoods in yellows and blues.
“The Magic City SAP has been located and designed with an eye towards sustainability and resilience,” reads a section of the project’s application letter. It continues, “Its location on a high coastal ridge will help to protect the Magic City SAP campus area from flooding and potential sea level rise issues."
That high coastal ridge is a dividing line in Miami for elevation and race.
In many other parts of the country, predominantly black communities were relegated to low-lying, flood prone areas largely because of racist and exclusionary housing policies.
“Patterns of land development and residential segregation that occurred in New Orleans and the rest of the country over the twentieth century concentrated black residents in the lower-lying sections of the city,” according to research from the National Institutes of Health.
In South Florida, the opposite was true. Segregation and redlining put black communities inland on higher elevation land while white communities coveted and built in low-lying waterfront areas. Through the Jim Crow era, Miami’s beachfront communities and those closest to them —whether for tourism or residential purposes—were considered “whites only.”
“Redlining reinforced segregation while encouraging development in flood prone areas,” said Jorge Damian de la Paz, an urban planning and housing researcher with the University of Miami. “Appraisers graded Miami Shores, the Venetian Islands and Surfside as safe for lending despite noting low elevation, poorly maintained waterways and flooding as known detrimental influences.”
Flood zones overlaid with Miami's redlining map. Almost all of the areas considered most "desirable" for home lenders was within a high-risk flood zone. pic.twitter.com/4nsPS1ijwN— Jorge Damian de la Paz (@jddelapaz_) June 19, 2019
In the 1930s when government surveyors drew out redling maps that graded neighborhoods in Miami, nearly all of the low-lying areas on or near the water where white people lived were graded A or B, best and desirable.
The predominantly black inland communities just west of where the railroad tracks were built along the limestone ridge—and nearby where it was anticipated people of color would live— were given the lowest grade, D.
“Higher elevation areas like present day Little Haiti, Little Havana, Liberty City were labeled as either declining or hazardous,” said LaPaz.
Today, other high-elevation communities are looking at what’s happening in Little Haiti as a warning sign to get ready.
“My grandfather, he always would talk to us, like, ‘They gon’ steal our communities because it don't flood.’ I remember him saying it as a young child,” said Valencia Gunder a climate activist who lives in Liberty City which sits at least 10 feet above level with some areas higher than that.
“They didn't know the science. They just knew and understood that when flooding happens everywhere else, it don't flood over here,” she said. “And they knew that that was going to be one of the triggers for them to come take our communities.”
Miami city officials are hesitant to say “climate gentrification” is happening, but they’re taking the idea seriously enough to study it “in order to allow as many residents who wish to stay in their neighborhoods to do so,” according to the resolution proposed by the city’s sea level rise committee.
There is no clear timeline on when the city’s study will be completed.
Jeremy Calleros Gauger, Miami’s deputy director for planning, said he doesn’t believe the pressure in neighborhoods like Little Haiti or Liberty City is being driven by elevation right now. However, he said, as the city studies the issue further it could become a helpful tool.
“From a planning perspective, where climate gentrification would be very useful is if it could become a predictive tool for us to figure out where the next wave of development pressure is going to go,” he said. “We're not seeing a correlation between the elevation and the development pressure at this point. I don't think that means it's not something we shouldn’t be concerned about longer term.”
Regardless of what it’s called—“climate gentrification” by academics and activists, “regular gentrification” by some community members and city officials or “smart planning” by developers and urban planners —there is an increasing push to build on high-ground in the city.
In a study commissioned by the City of Miami, the Urban Land Institute recommended that local authorities focus on “density and transit oriented development along more naturally water resilient elevations like the ridge.”
Building on the ridge that encompasses some of Miami’s historically black neighborhoods will require the city to preserve and build new affordable housing, according to the study, which also noted that city officials would have to “be sensitive to potential displacement pressure.”
“Certainly, it's going to make more sense to have ideally more density in our higher ground areas near our transit lines,” said Jane Gilbert, Miami’s chief resilience officer. “Ideally, we want those areas to be mixed income so we want to create policies that are going to support that.”
For some residents, those policies can’t come soon enough.
For, Louis Rosemont, the 61 year old who was evicted to make way for what likely will be a new development project, he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to afford to move back to Little Haiti.
He says for as long as he can, he will continue to take the 45 minute bus ride from North Miami Beach back to the neighborhood he still calls “home.” The familiar place where friends still greet him on the sidewalks in kreyol, where he can walk into a store and buy ginger infused Haitian peanut brittle or haggle with a street vendor for a small jar of lwil maskreti, Haitian castor oil, for one of his homemade remedies.
“Everyday I’m in Little Haiti,” he said. “Little Haiti is my home.”
And should the day come when he is no longer physically able to take that bus ride from North Miami Beach, he said, “ My spirit is still in Little Haiti.”
Former WNYC reporter Christopher Johnson contributed to this report. This story was produced in collaboration with "The Stakes" podcast out of WNYC in New York. You can find the three-part climate gentrification series here or look for "The Stakes" on WLRN Presents whereever you get your podcasts.