When sea levels rise, so does your rent

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Renita Holmes has been displaced four times in the past three years by rising rents

With sea levels rising around the globe, Miami, in the US state of Florida, is facing an urgent need to adapt. As property investors turn their gaze inland, away from the exclusive low-lying beach area, residents in one poorer neighbourhood further above sea level say rising rents are forcing them out.

“It’s a beautiful place, and developers are selling this tropical lifestyle,” says housing activist Renita Holmes.

“So, they build up and everybody moves to Miami, and we get moved out.”

Ms Holmes lives in Little Haiti, a neighbourhood situated five miles inland from the luxurious Miami Beach.

Walking through the area’s colourful streets you will hear Creole being spoken as you breathe in the rich smells of Caribbean cooking.

“I love Little Haiti because it still has that swampy appearance, it still has trees and vines,” says Ms Holmes.

“The Haitian community and the culture are vibrant. I saw people that were beautiful, tasteful and talented, and now it’s my home too, and I love it.”


when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Little Haiti is a vibrant community known for its bright, colourful murals

Little Haiti’s poverty rate is higher than average for the city of Miami, and household incomes are mostly well below the median.

Racial segregation laws in the first half of the 20th Century, and the forced relocation of some minorities, made neighbourhoods like Little Haiti a refuge for diverse and poor communities.

However, the neighbourhood’s proximity to hip bars and restaurants in the nearby Design District and Wynwood now make it enticing for developers.

Entrepreneur Tony Cho, who developed parts of Wynwood, turned his attention to Little Haiti, drawing up plans for a $1bn (£792m) high-rise development called Magic City on 18 acres of land, which received planning permission in 2019.

Residents say they soon felt the effect in their pockets.

Reina Cartagena, who owns Adelita’s Cafe on NE 2nd Ave, one of Little Haiti’s main roads, says her rent has doubled in less than a year.

Many of her customers have relocated to different parts of the US, she says, and she is considering doing the same. Numerous other businesses in the street have already closed.

“I feel like I’m going to be displaced. The rent is very, very high and I’m not making ends meet.”

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Developer Tony Cho was behind the Magic City Innovation District project

Renita Holmes says her rent too has risen, increasing from $1,200 to $1,800 per month in the past three years.

“Land development is in, people development is out,” she says.

“The bottom line is always money. Buy cheap, sell high, and so it causes us to be gentrified.”

A $31m fund from the Magic City development is being set aside to finance affordable housing and other public benefits in Little Haiti, but many residents remain opposed to plans to build skyscrapers in a neighbourhood where most buildings do not exceed two storeys.

High ground

Another potential attraction of Little Haiti is its location on a limestone ridge about 18ft (5.5m) above sea level. This makes it more than four times higher than Miami Beach, which risks being flooded if sea levels continue to rise, and steps are not taken to keep the water out.

The Florida Climate Center, which says the sea level has risen 6in (15cm) in Miami the past 31 years, quotes “high scenario projections” which suggest a similar rise in the next 15 years. Other researchers talk about a potential rise of nearly 7ft by 2100.

This has led to claims that the residents of Little Haiti are the victims of “climate gentrification” – a process whereby wealthy people displace poorer people from areas that are better equipped to withstand the impacts of a changing climate.

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Prof William Butler, from Florida State University, researches climate displacement

Renita Holmes says this is exactly what is happening.

“They saw how high the land was over here – and now they’re living here so the condos won’t go right into the surf,” she says.

Prof William Butler of Florida State University, says the higher ground was once affordable because it was “the least desirable place to be”.

“Now there is a certain irony these places might become much more desirable”, he says.

“That adds one more layer to drivers of displacement of lower income people, who are the most stressed in the context of climate change in the first place”.

In his view, it’s too early to say whether climate change is a key factor in Little Haiti’s gentrification, though he says local people report seeing advertisements for new properties describing them as “safer from the floods, storms and sea level rise”.

The planning application for Magic City also noted that its height would protect it from climate change impacts.

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Flooding and storm events are becoming more frequent in Miami

Porous rock

Tony Cho is no longer involved with the development but he still works in the area, and says very few people come to him and say they want to invest in Little Haiti because it is 18ft above sea level.

“If you’re an investor, your motivation is to get a return on your investment. So people invest where they believe that the value is going to be higher than when they invested in it,” he says.

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Protestors tried to fight the Magic City development before it was approved in 2019

He also draws attention to another feature of Miami’s geology – Little Haiti, just like Miami Beach, is sitting on a bed of porous limestone, so the rock will get damper in both locations, he says.

“I don’t look at it as Little Haiti is on a mountain and Miami Beach is at sea level,” he says. “What people need to understand is that as sea level rises, it comes from the bottom, not just from the side.”

He doesn’t deny that Little Haiti is gentrifying and that some residents are being displaced, but he says this transformation is not unique to the area, as it is happening in “every major urban area” globally.

Renita Holmes says she has noticed problems with damp increasing – it’s the reason why she has moved house four times in the last three years, looking for a more affordable and better maintained home.

“It’s a beautiful place but underneath the ground something is different. The toxicity level, the mould, the moisture, no drains. My health has changed.

“They didn’t build things in a resilient way.”

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

Residents and business owners in Little Haiti are feeling the pressure of gentrification

‘Sea level is about me’

In a bid to protect her community, Ms Holmes has become a fellow of the Cleo Institute, a Florida-based NGO, and joined their Empowering Women programme aimed at people on the front line of the climate crisis.

“They gave me the knowledge, the terminology, and then I found out sea level rise was about me,” says Ms Holmes, who has been named as one of the BBC’s 100 Women for 2023 for her work to advance housing rights for marginalised communities.

She spends her time educating friends and neighbours and campaigning to protect what she sees as the beauty and identity of Little Haiti.

“If we don’t tell our stories, we don’t expose them, then they’ll just build on top of us and it’ll become a concrete city,” she says.

“It’s traumatising, the anxiety of not knowing how are you going to live? How are you going to breathe? Will you be able to afford it? And would you be able to take care of your children.

“I am resilient, I am empowered and as long as I’ve got empowerment, resilience and a voice, I will live here.”

Additional reporting by Cecilia Barría.

when sea levels rise, so does your rent

BBC 100 Women names 100 inspiring and influential women around the world every year. Follow BBC 100 Women on Instagram and Facebook. Join the conversation using #BBC100Women.

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