High and Dry

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

Parts of Miami could be under water in only a few decades. That is why prices are now skyrocketing in a low-income neighborhood previously largely home to Haitian residents.

Rising sea levels lead to gentrification in Miami

High and dry

Actually Mimi Senonjules could prepare a personalized fruit cocktail for each and every customer. Freshly pressed juice in every color sits in large mason jars. All she lacks are the customers. It is midday on a Saturday at the Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti and there are almost no people around. Three young men sit on metal garden chairs and fan themselves with magazines in an attempt to stave off the humid heat of southern Florida. It is hard to remember that this place is at the center of Miami’s once-thriving Haitian community.

“It used to be a lot busier here,” Senonjules comments as she rearranges the juice glasses. “But then they started pushing us Haitians out.” The 47-year-old knows what she is talking about. At the end of last year, she lost her general store. “Instead of $1,800, my landlady suddenly wanted $3,200 a month.”

Pay or get out — that is what the white property owner told her. Senonjules could not pay, so she was forced to leave the neighborhood in which she had spent half her life. The constantly rising rents mean that Senonjules no longer lives in Little Haiti. Many other shopkeepers are facing the same problem.

Landlords are raising the rent for apartments and retail spaces or simply ending lease agreements. Investors are purchasing houses from Haitians who are tight for cash and then selling them for a staggering profit. All this has led to the fact that Little Haiti is under threat of losing its very essence. The locals call it an invasion.

Until recently, the area was considered a dangerous neighborhood, to be avoided at all cost. Covering an area of close to 3.5 square miles, for decades it remained untouched by the construction boom that swept the city. Due to the predominance of poverty and violence, the affluent residents of Miami kept away. Over the last years, however, things have started to change.

Investors are increasingly buying up houses. Galleries and start-ups are moving in. It is gentrification as usual. But why Little Haiti in particular? The expensive residential areas in Miami are almost all near to the beach or in neighboring Miami Beach. These areas have been bustling with investors for decades. Little Haiti lies further inland and boasts neither spectacular views of the Biscayne Bay nor mooring options for boats.

The reason behind Little Haiti’s rising popularity might just lie in a brown strip on a digital map of the city. It follows the coast several kilometers inland and Little Haiti sits right in the middle. In 2008, Florida International University published a topographical map showing that large parts of Miami could disappear underwater in the coming century due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. The color brown is a sign of higher ground.

Elevation is becoming increasingly valuable in Miami. The world famous beachside city is already experiencing more frequent flooding. In Miami Beach, where parts of the city are at sea level, a light rain can be enough in some areas to submerge entire apartment complexes.

The Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti, in contrast, is almost 13 feet above sea level and that is still 8 feet more than the minimum sea level rise predicted to occur by 2060. Even flooding caused by hurricanes or heavy rainfall rarely affects the area.

The advantages of this elevation become clearer every year. No, she can’t remember any recent floods in Little Haiti, answers Mimi Senonjules. Is that why Little Haiti has suddenly become so popular? Senonjules shrugs her shoulders. Could be.

Fighting against displacement: Nancy Metayer

Nancy Metayer, however, is convinced that rising sea levels are responsible for the gentrification taking place in Little Haiti. She calls it climate gentrification. Metayer’s parents are Haitian migrants, but she doesn’t live in the neighborhood. The 30-year-old member of the New Florida Majority, an activist group that fights for minority rights, is campaigning against the demographic change in Little Haiti. “The pattern is always the same,” Metayer says. Leases are not renewed, rents are raised, homes are vacated.

As most Haitians are too poor to buy their own homes, and Florida does not have any effective measures in place to protect tenant’s rights, they are at the mercy of the landlords. Anyone who does own a house is offered cash by investors, says Metayer. “A couple hundred thousand dollars — they think it is a lot of money. Until they realize that it won’t get them anything in Miami.”

Little Haiti is covered with signs from realtors offering cash for land and houses. Prices are going through the roof. The real estate website Zillow advertises a tiny, overgrown piece of land for almost $200,000. In 2003, that same piece of land cost only $40,000.

Nancy Metayer wants people to be aware of the link between global warming and the Haitians’ current situation. “The people here do not even realize that it is global warming that is pushing them out,” Metayer says while handing out flyers at the Caribbean Marketplace, advertising an information evening. But the activist is met with little interest — not just from Mimi Senonjules.

The young men on the garden chairs are not interested in climate change, especially not what Metayer has to say about. “They don’t want to hear what a woman has to say,” says the activist. “They think they are being pushed out of the neighborhood because white people don’t like Haitians.” After 15 minutes of conversation, Metayer gives up.

The communication barrier between the activist, a graduate of an elite university and former White House intern, and the uninterested neighborhood locals seems too big. Metayer was able to hand out a couple of flyers, but she nevertheless seems disappointed. “It is difficult to foster community spirit here.” Climate change is a distant thought for these people who are more focused on their daily struggles. She tries to stop them from selling their houses. “But they are poor. It is hard to stick together when you have bills to pay.”

It is true that Little Haiti is poor. Almost one-third of the thirty thousand residents rely on food stamps and houses are crumbling. Overgrown properties and piles of garbage are everywhere. Homeless people can be seen at many intersections. Far from the luxury beach houses and apartment complexes, everyone here is just trying to survive.

The majority of Haitians began arriving at the end of the 1970s, fleeing the brutal Duvalier regime by boat to Miami. They settled in Lemon City, north of the city center and transformed the area into Little Haiti. Unlike the incoming Cubans who were welcomed with open arms by the US government due to their opposition to the Castro government, the Haitians were marginalized, deported, and later hampered in their attempts to gain citizenship.

Even today, many Haitians still believe that they are being oppressed because they dared to oppose slavery in 1791 and fight for independence. Effectively, first France and then the USA tried to politically dominate the former colony and force it into economic ruin. The forced displacement out of Little Haiti fits perfectly into this narrative.

He eschews the name "Little Haiti": investor Peter Ehrlich

Little Haiti. Peter Ehrlich doesn’t accept the name. He prefers to call it Lemon City. “I respect the historic names of places,” the real estate investor says as he drives past a warehouse in his black BMW. What he means is, the Haitians have no claim to territory here. This argument also helps the marketing of the lofts and strip malls he owns in Little Haiti. He was one of the first investors to begin buying up properties here more than 20 years ago because “it just became too expensive in Miami Beach.”

And that is exactly what Ehrlich attributes the popularity of the neighborhood to. “Here we are close to the popular inner-city neighborhoods and the prices are affordable,” says Ehrlich. According to him, the Haitians have been voluntarily moving away for years and in some cases have taken too little care of their stores. “You need to offer goods and services that people want to buy,” Ehrlich says.

But the question remains: Who are the new services in Little Haiti for? Who, in a neighborhood with 40% unemployment, is interested in the improvisational comedy that is on offer at a new theatre located directly beside the Caribbean Marketplace? Which employee, earning the minimum wage, is going to order organic chicken prepared by a French chef in the restaurant across the road, which sits on land that is now worth $5 million? Who can afford paintings from the Israeli artist who has set up a gallery in a nearby loft in front of which homeless people sleep in the midday sun? The future that Peter Ehrlich is helping to shape for this neighborhood evidently does not include the original residents.

By all appearances, Ehrlich is the only white person out and about in Little Haiti today. The people on the street warily observe the passing SUV. Inside, Ehrlich rattles off the prices of the properties he has sold. With a practiced eye, he scans the buildings as he passes them. “That is a beautiful row of houses, but it lacks parking facilities.” Aside from the luxury car, Ehrlich’s appearance is rather modest. Blue polo shirt, jeans, glasses on a lanyard.

The investor is thinking strategically and long-term. Therefore, climate change is understandably on his mind. Regarding his properties he says, “One day, this could all be beach front.”

Climate gentrification has been at the center of discussions for a while now in Miami. “At some point, people realized that this area is between 13 and 23 feet above sea level and will most likely remain untouched by the rising waters.” Ehrlich was already investing in the area before climate change appeared on the radar, but the issue is gaining more and more importance. Soon, people will be rushing to buy properties on higher ground. “The real estate market is going to become a game of musical chairs. Nobody wants to be the last one standing — alone on an island covered in water.” Even he plans on selling his apartment near the bay soon. “One day, the lobby will be flooded.”

One of Ehrlich’s tenants in the warehouse district is Robert Ziehm who has a loft there. It has been his home for three years now. He is one of the new group of wealthier people moving into the neighborhood. The former club owner has lived in Miami since the 80s and has seen the effects climate change has had on the tourist destination. “There are streets in South Beach that become flooded almost every time it rains.” In his new home, this is not the case. Even last September when hurricane Irma swept over Miami, Ziehm didn’t have use for the sandbags he has piled against the wall in front of the bathroom. Ziehm is a real estate agent. “It is no secret that elevation is going to become an increasingly important factor on the property market. Everyone is talking about it. And I always bring it up with my clients.” The smart ones in the business — like Ziehm — are exclusively investing in properties on higher ground. The first property owners near the beach are already selling up. “One day, everyone will realize.”

But what does the real estate awakening in South Florida mean for the residents of Little Haiti? “At some point, they will all be gone,” of this, Robert Ziehm is certain. Homeowners can simply kick their tenants out, “The law in the USA stands behind homeowners.” But those who do own property and refuse to sell have other hurdles ahead of them. Due to rising property prices in the neighborhood, property taxes are also increasing. “The Haitians have been given the short end of the stick,” Ziehm acknowledges.

The big investors have big plans for Little Haiti. In the north of the neighborhood, 17 residential and commercial high-rises of up to 27 stories are to be erected as part of the Magic City Project. And more large-scale projects are in the works. The sleepy residential area of single-story bungalows is to grow into a mega city destined for others. The Haitians likely won’t be able to afford an apartment here.

Like Mimi Senonjules. She only comes to the Marketplace on Saturdays. She still sells some African clothing from her old shop at the stand. “But really, I just come by to dance a bit, relax and talk to my people.” A little sense of community, away from her new home in North Miami, more than 4.5 miles from the once so lively Haitian microcosm.

Does it flood there? “Of course,” Senonjules says. “Constantly.”

How a pilot project saved a city

Rising roads combat rising seas

Before, it didn’t even need to rain for the streets to become flooded. In Sunset Harbour, the tides alone could take care of that. During heavy rains, the streets could be navigated by kayak.

The waterfront neighborhood in Miami Beach, directly on the Biscayne Bay that connects Miami to the neighboring coastal city, is only inches above sea level. Due to rising sea levels, the area might have soon become uninhabitable. But floods are now a thing of the past thanks to multi-million dollar technology and a cunning idea. If sea levels are rising, then the city must do so too. “Rising above” is the name of the pilot project that is saving Sunset Harbour from going under.

The City of Miami Beach has raised roads by up to more than 3 feet over the 40-acre area. In some places, the storefronts of cafes and restaurants are disappearing below the earth. But, “We are now safe from flooding for the next 30 years,” says Roy Coley in a broad southern accent.

Coley was involved in the conception of the project and now works on public relations. And the demand is high. Journalists and representatives from other communities want to know how Sunset Harbour managed to defy the consequences of climate change — at least in the medium-term.

The secret lies in the hollow space beneath the road surface. A drainage system powered by more than 30 pumps feeds water from the residential areas into the bay, while one-way valves prevent the water from flowing back. “During hurricane Irma last year, you could see the water rising everywhere,” Coley says. “But here, even at the height of the storm, the roads remained dry.”

The project has so far cost $20 million. In total, a budget of $500 million is available. Notoriously flood-prone areas are to be tackled first. All these projects are financed by the residents.

The city charges each person $23 per month towards flood control. In well-to-do Miami Beach, it is more than affordable. “The residents have decided that they can afford it, says Roy Coley, adding, “It might not be possible elsewhere.”

In fact, the landmark project reflects social exclusivity. Philip Levine, mayor of Miami Beach until 2017, owns property here. There is speculation in the local media as to whether this local heavyweight could have anything to do with the multi-million dollar infrastructure renewal currently underway in Sunset Harbour.

If you drive through neighboring Miami — and in particular the less affluent neighborhoods — flood control measures appear to be considerably less advanced. These areas sometimes even lack a functioning drainage system.


The research for these articles was made possible with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

The original article “Auf dem Trockenen” was published in German at taz on July 28th, 2018. The original article “Eine Stadt erhebt sich” was published in German at taz on September 10th, 2018.

The text was translated from German into English by Viktoria Theimann.