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In Miami, rising seas threatening the few affordable neighborhoods

A national study shows subsidized housing across the country is at risk from repeated flooding.

Daelé Guerra keeps a stack of bricks in her first-floor apartment in Hialeah. It’s the only protection she can afford against the floodwaters that have ruined all of her belongings three times this year alone. When the water comes, she uses them to prop up her furniture.

This spring, Guerra, a 53-year-old supervisor at a medical center, had to room with a relative for nearly three months while her landlord renovated the ruined one-story building. Since then, the apartment has flooded twice more.

“As soon as it starts to rain I almost can’t work or think straight, because I’m already bracing myself for a flood,” said Guerra, who’s lived there for six years. While flooding was always a regular occurrence on her street, it’s the first year that the water has seeped in under the door and gushed up from the bathtub and toilet, making the place uninhabitable for days on end.

Guerra would like to move out, but she’s struggled to find somewhere cheaper than the $975 a month she pays now. And she’s not alone.

New research shows that Miami’s affordable housing — already in short supply — is at risk of flooding from sea level rise in the coming decades. The University of Miami found that more than half of all affordable housing in Miami-Dade county lies below Miami’s average elevation of seven feet above sea level.

Jennifer Posner, program manager for the University of Miami’s office of civic and community engagement, said the impact can already be felt for people like Guerra.

“A storm like Eta, which wasn’t really that big a deal for a lot of us, was a big deal for parking lots of affordable housing buildings,” she said. Affordable housing buildings also are often built to lower standards, she said, are already desperately in need of repairs.

A new look at affordable housing at risk of flooding

On Tuesday, UM debuted a new tool, funded by $500,000 in grants from JPMorgan Chase, to help community groups and politicians figure out how to keep affordable housing dry. It shows where all of Miami-Dade affordable housing (defined for this effort as paid for or subsidized by the government) is on a map, then layers on the expected flooding from sea level rise later in the century.

In Miami-Dade, that’s a little over two feet of sea rise by 2060. By that point, the research found, more than 2,300 affordable housing units will be at risk of flooding driven by sea level rise. By 2070, that number jumps to nearly 4,000.

That number only reflects a fraction of the real-world properties that are impacted because it only refers to properties subsidized or paid for by the government, not the cheaper housing options people like Guerra live in.

A national survey of federally subsidized housing published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters had similar findings. Benjamin Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of nonprofit research organization Climate Central, said the research showed that thousands of federally subsidized housing units are at risk as sea levels rise.

“This population is the group least able to respond to or recover from coastal flooding,” said Strauss, one of the authors of the paper. “People who have valuable homes, it’s terrible to see the values go down, but it’s not as terrible as having nothing and having the little you have become contaminated by mold. It’s not as bad as losing your appliances when those are your only valuables.”

When it comes to federally subsidized housing, the national picture is grimmer in places like New Jersey and Massachusetts, where coastal property isn’t as expensive as Florida. In the Sunshine State, the skyrocketing price of coastal real estate (and racist redlining policies) pushed more of that category of affordable housing options inland.

But as UM’s new map points out, the risk of flooding to affordable housing doesn’t stop at the coast. Sections along the Miami River are lined with affordable housing in the form of dense apartment buildings, and an overflow, perhaps driven by hurricane storm surge, could flood soak tens of thousands of residents.

Robin Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement at UM, said the hope is that researchers and elected officials can use the information shown by the tool to figure out which solutions will protect the most people, like choosing to build more affordable housing in higher elevation spots.

The toolkit also includes brief descriptions of a few possible solutions, like energy-efficient building standards (like the county is already working on), a development checklist for adaptation measures like floodproofing, and buyouts. It doesn’t touch on more dramatic changes like higher impact fees for developers and zoning changes to encourage development away from risky coastal areas.

Higher elevation, higher home values

None of the solutions specifically mention a central concern for many Miami housing and climate activists — climate gentrification. For years, advocates and residents of quickly gentrifying, high elevation neighborhoods like Little Haiti have sounded the alarm that the two are connected. They worry that wealthy home buyers and investors are snapping up properties in the highest parts of the city, the historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, in order to stay high and dry in the future.

A Harvard University study found that single-family homeowners in Miami-Dade were increasingly buying high elevation properties, and WLRN reported that a mega-development in Little Haiti listed the region’s high elevation as a perk to protect against sea level rise.

“You’re seeing an increase in the insurance premiums for any building in a flood point or coastal area and that’s driving people to Liberty City and Overtown because it’s such high elevation that they don’t have to pay those premiums,” said Adrian Madriz, executive director of the nonprofit Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing. “The thing that makes it crystal clear that this is happening is that areas with low elevation that would normally be ripe for gentrification because of their proximity to downtown are not being favored by investors.”

But experts aren’t convinced that the gentrification happening in places like Little Haiti is mainly due to climate change.

“Nobody has defined it precisely. Nobody has a clear set of identifiers that distinguish it from other forms of gentrification. Nobody has policy solutions that tackle it specifically,” said Bachin. “Does it make a difference if you label something climate gentrification in terms of what the policy solution is?”

Annie Lord, head of affordable housing advocacy group Homes For All, said she sees climate change making the affordable housing crunch even worse. A warmer climate means more destructive hurricanes are likely, jacking up the cost of home insurance. The federal government is under pressure to raise the rates of flood insurance, and the cost to keep properties dry in the face of rising floodwaters isn’t cheap either.

“It’s going to be very pricey to own property here whether you’re a landlord or a prospective home buyer,” she said. “You’re going to see climate and sea level rise continue to put pressure on our wealth and income divides and continue to push people who’re able to financially weather the storm further apart from those who are not.”

Lord said most of Miami-Dade’s affordable housing isn’t subsidized by the government, it’s just cheap. And it’s usually in pretty bad shape.

A Florida International University report found that 70% of the county’s single-family homes, condominiums and townhouses were built before the strict building standards enacted after 1992′s Hurricane Andrew kicked in. If a powerful hurricane hit the county, the FIU report showed, a million people could be left homeless. It would cost billions to bring everything up to code.