Climate Gentrification and Its Rising Impact, Explained

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by | Jun 17, 2021

Entering the history books with record-breaking storms, 2020 also witnessed record-breaking damage and human displacement.1 The future is not looking brighter, either. Scientists estimate that by 2050 the lives and livelihoods of more than 800 million people in 570 coastal cities will be endangered by increasingly-powerful storms, frequent flooding and the persistently rising sea.2  Disaster management experts recommend moving away from vulnerable coastlines and as real estate trends confirm, many people are heeding this advice. However, the path to safer, more climate-resilient homes sometimes leads down a slippery slope to climate gentrification, where inequalities are exacerbated as wealthy home-buyers and real estate speculators displace vulnerable populations already suffering from systemic inequities.

Read on to learn why underprivileged people suffer greater climate change impacts after being displaced by wealthy people renovating cheap properties into climate-resilient homes.

How Resilient Real Estate Drives Climate Gentrification

As coastal residents’ fears have grown over severe storms and flooding, demand for inland homes in higher elevations has likewise increased. Previously less-than-desirable neighborhoods were suddenly perceived as safer havens from Nature’s wrath. Climate resiliency became a hot new amenity, adding a novel climate-change imperative to urban gentrification pressures already overwhelming low-income communities. As with urban gentrification, the newly defined “climate gentrification” exacerbates inequalities faced by communities already suffering from systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities and public housing shortages. However, when these vulnerable populations are displaced by climate gentrification, they ironically find themselves suffering additional climate change impacts because living near their workplaces becomes too expensive due to rising property values and low-end housing disappears completely.3

 For example, when Hurricane Irma struck Miami in 2017, prime beachfront properties suffered billions of dollars in damage. Affluent investors and home-buyers looked more closely at inland neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Overtown, relatively protected by distance and elevation from the coast.4 In Overtown, climate gentrification pressures on this historically black neighborhood situated only one mile from the shore have spurred high-rise developments in the midst of dilapidated homes. CEO Gretchen Beesing of the community development and advocacy group Catalyst Miami is not surprised at the pace of climate gentrification in Overtown. “We see climate as a really important issue that intersects with poverty and financial security,” states Beesing. “For some families, this may feel like an opportunity to get cash for their house. But the problem is then, where do they go?”5

The Rising Dilemma of Climate Gentrification vs Displacement

With some of the world’s most valuable coastal real estate and perhaps the greatest exposure to sea-level rise in the U.S., Miami faces enormous challenges to overcome risks from climate change. The Urban Land Institute predicts property losses exceeding $3 billion from daily tidal flooding by 2040 if nothing mitigates this threat. By 2070, the unmitigated risk reaches $23.5 billion.6 Property owners fleeing from the risk of flooding pose a huge threat to the city’s tax base, so Miami is strongly incentivized to persuade businesses and homeowners to stay where they are. Consequently, “You see a really high return on investment for adaptation now, to protect the macroeconomic situation in South Florida,” says Katherine Hagemann, head of climate adaptation policy for Miami-Dade County. Hagemann explains, “The cost of retreat in some of those places, if you were to buy them out at market value, would be really high.”7 By using its income from the Miami Forever Bond, the city plans to improve drainage systems, pumping stations and help improve home resilience.3

Conversely, just south of Miami-Dade, officials in the Florida Keys announced lately that protecting every home from the rising sea-level is not economically feasible because improvements would cost more than the small population’s tax revenue could afford. Voicing concern at a climate change conference in Key West, Monroe County Manager Roman Gastesi complained, “How do you tell somebody, ‘We’re not going to build the road to get to your home’? And what do we do?” With no answers forthcoming, Mr. Gastesi persisted, “Do we buy them out? And how do we buy them out — is it voluntary? Is it eminent domain? How do we do that?”8 

Miami Sets the Pace for Climate Adaptation

Miami’s experiences, successes and failures with climate adaptation measures offer conspicuous examples to other U.S. cities and counties facing similar challenges. But some climate experts think Miami-Dade’s strategy minimizes the threat of a 2-foot rise in sea-level by 2060. Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, describes the county’s plan as “just enough to reassure developers that Miami’s safe enough to build in, in the near term.” However,  Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of Florida’s CLEO Institute, a nonprofit group advocating for community protections against climate change, has a different outlook. Responding to an alarm that denser housing plans for higher land would increase climate gentrification, Arditi-Rocha chooses instead to praise the county’s acknowledgment of lower-income residents’ displacement risk, noting, “Wealthy and poor people in Miami-Dade County face different types of risks due to sea-level rise.”7

Other advocates in Miami keep climate gentrification risks in mind as they help ensure money from the Miami Forever Bond goes equally toward low-income and affluent neighborhood improvements. And confirming Arditi-Rocha’s confidence in the county’s concern for its more vulnerable residents, Miami has also commissioned research quantifying climate gentrification effects on its communities so data collected can guide future evidence-based adaptation policies.3

Climate Adaptation Requires New Skills

With the Greenland ice sheet melting approximately six times faster than in the 1990s, the rising sea-level is relentlessly diminishing coastal and riverside land-use.9 And severe storms due to rising ocean temperatures are increasingly devastating coastal towns and cities, sometimes repeatedly in the same year. As these locations consider climate adaptation measures, plans must be developed to sustain social, economic and climate resilience for all residents, not just the financially-privileged segment.

If your profession is already involved, or you’re personally interested in developing a synergy between socioeconomic forces and the weather, consider the benefits of an Online Master of Jurisprudence in Environmental Law or an Online Master of Jurisprudence in Energy Law from Tulane University Law School. With up-to-the-minute training provided completely online, we offer all the knowledge, skills and tools you need to help design and implement synergistic adaptation measures balanced fairly between the needs of competing interests and ensuring sustainable climate resilience for all.


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