Sorry, Atlantic, Climate Change Isn't Causing Gentrification in Miami

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The two biggest stories in Miami right now are the looming threat of sea-level rise and the gentrification of working-class ethnic neighborhoods amid a dearth of affordable housing. 

Both are serious challenges for the Magic City's future, and both stories have been covered extensively by the local and national media. Yet no one has tried to link the two topics directly — until now, probably because they have little to do with each other. Yet The Atlantic tries to make the case in a story today. 

"Taking the High Ground — and Developing It," the headline reads

The author's theory is that developers are buying up land in areas such as Little Haiti and Little Havana because they have higher elevations and are thus less prone to the long-term effects of sea-level rise. 

"As sea levels rise, investors in Miami are buying up land with higher elevation, sometimes displacing low-income residents," the subhead reads. 

Yet nowhere in the article is that theory proved. In fact, it's disproved time and time again. Here are some excerpts from the article: 

  • "I asked Mayor Tomás Regalado if developers are going to stop building on the waterfront, considering the predicted rise in sea level. 'The developers?' he recoiled. 'Of course not.'"
  • "City officials hesitate to suggest that developers should look to higher ground."
  • "Howard Kuker, the lawyer representing the new owners of [a trailer park in Little Havana]... said that his clients hadn’t cited the elevation of their land as their prime motivation for purchasing it, and noted that the tract’s value lies in its size." 

So any time Atlantic writer Matt Vasilogambros asks anyone if the long-term threat of global warming has any direct effect on gentrification in Little Haiti, the answer is no. 

Vasilogambros gets one developer who just bought land in Little Haiti to imagine he could use the area's high elevation as a sales pitch, but the developer doesn't say that's why he bought there. (It should be noted that real-estate developers are good at turning almost anything into a sales pitch.)

And why would a developer buy property now simply because it's at a higher elevation? That would be a stupid idea for several reasons: 

  • Sea-level rise may be happening, but still no one has a concrete idea of how quickly it will happen. Downtown Miami may be swallowed up by the seas by the end of the century, or the process may take several centuries. 
  • Miami developers, historically, aren't particularly good at looking at the long term. The history of this city is one of real-estate booms and busts. Sure, developers are playing it safer this time around, but we highly doubt any of them makes investments with the idea of cashing in on them in 100 years or more. They'll be dead. 
  • Would developers still be buying up land in Little Haiti and Havana even if sea-level rise weren't a threat? Yes. Yes, they would. These are neighborhoods close to the urban core where land is still a relative bargain, at least to a monied developer. 
  • Areas in Little Haiti may be oceanfront property in the next few centuries, but it won't exactly afford breathtaking views. There won't be a big, beautiful beach there. There won't even be an unobstructed ocean. They'll be looking at the very depressing site of the wreckage of a great world city that has succumbed to flooding. Who would pay a premium for that? Or do we imagine there will be some mass effort (and funding) to clear the waters of what's left of Miami? Probably not. 

So in the end, the Atlantic story is basically clickbait. It's a headline that says one thing but doesn't prove it. Developers aren't buying up land in higher-elevation areas because of sea-level rise. They're doing it because the purchases make sense under today's real-estate market conditions. Don't confuse correlation with causation.

Both sea-level rise and gentrification are big problems in Miami. But it doesn't do anyone any good to conflate them.

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