Miami's more expensive coastal neighborhoods are under pressure from sea level riseWith Miami's coastal neighborhoods under threat from sea level rise, the city is concerned about coastal flight impacting lower income neighborhoods on higher ground. Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

As Miami struggles to plan for the impact of rising seas, its City Commission has taken the unusually forward-looking step of trying to protect low-income residents from being forced out of their higher-elevation neighborhoods by wealthier people fleeing their coastal properties.

The City Commission recently passed a resolution directing the city manager to research gentrification in lower-income areas located further inland and to research methods for stabilizing property tax rates in these areas.    

If property taxes rise, the current residents could be forced out. Climate change is already starting to affect property values in Miami, with a study by Harvard researchers published earlier this year finding that property values have risen in higher elevation properties in Miami-Dade County while lower-elevation property values have lagged. According to the study, the findings hint at consumer preferences based on perceptions of flood risk. “In light of accelerated SLR, these preferences may become more robust and may lead to more widespread relocations that serve to gentrify higher elevation communities,” the researchers wrote.

Miami’s city commission cited this study in its resolution, identifying climate gentrification as a significant concern. In July, the city’s Sea Level Rise Committee recommended that the city manager study the effects of climate change on housing, specifically focusing on low- to moderate-income residents. City officials worked with grassroots organizations to prioritize vulnerable communities.

“We didn’t have a seat on [our Sea Level Rise Committee] for social justice, for climate justice. There was the political will from the commission to basically toss the board and start over from scratch and make sure that seat had a voice at the table. Now it does, and it’s changed our conversations. That’s very encouraging,” said city commissioner Ken Russell.

Lack of affordable housing and gentrification are not new issues for Miami’s lower-income residents, and climate change could make them worse. The commission’s resolution will help determine the extent of the problem, and how it might be mitigated by stabilizing property tax rates.

“We need to really understand if climate is a direct driver of gentrification in this area,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the Cleo Institute, a Miami-based climate action nonprofit. “This resolution is looking at ways of making sure these communities are not left behind. I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Miami’s resolution is an important development, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who praised the city’s proactive approach to addressing climate displacement and migration.

“The impacts of climate change on human mobility are not limited to displacement resulting from extreme storms or wildfire, or migration caused by permanent inundation or desertification of settled lands,” he said. “People will move ahead of time, in order to reduce their exposure to risk, and this will have—and is already having—impacts on people vulnerable for other, non-climate-related reasons. Miami is ahead of the curve in identifying the problem, and seeking to analyze how to protect vulnerable populations.”