Financial Crisis Looms in South Florida as Seas Rise

Developers Look Inland, 'Climate Refugees' Move Out

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Nichole Hefty is chief of Miami-Dade County’s Office of Sustainability.

Miranda Peterson is a Research Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 10:01 am

While some still think climate change is a problem to be faced by future generations, financial institutions and insurance providers in southeastern Florida are already factoring it in to investment decisions.

Predictions that melting ice caps will increase global sea level by 2 to 3 feet in the next 40 years have begun to alter the very definition of "beachfront property" in the region's coastal areas. As developers look inland for property on higher ground, there is concern that the poor, mostly immigrant, people in some neighborhoods will be forced out.

Luiz Rodrigues, a local environmental advocate and former member of the City of Miami Beach Sustainability Committee, has expressed concerns that an economic crisis will impact the region ahead of the rising tides, and he thinks financial institutions have been reluctant to inform the public about the growing urgency of the situation.

“I truly feel Miami Beach can expect economic collapse 10 years before the major impacts of sea level rise,” Rodrigues said.

He said developers are continuing to build and sell condos in the projected flood zones, even though these properties are “expected to be under water in 30 years or less.”

“Nobody wants to say Miami Beach is going to be gone in 30 years, so we are trying to do what we can so that we can stay here as long as we can,” Rodrigues said. The entire city is currently less than 4.5 feet above sea level, which has risen about a foot in the past century – and the rate at which it’s been rising is accelerating.

In August of last year, Miami-Dade County staff hosted a delegation of 35 representatives of Lloyds of London, one of the largest reinsurance agencies in the world. Separate meetings were held with Swiss Re, AJG and AIR Worldwide, as well as local real estate, business and insurance groups to discuss how the threat of sea level rise will impact future catastrophe modeling and development in south Florida.

One takeaway from these meetings was that sea level rise is not something that there will be insurance for in the future and what that means to residents and business owners in Miami-Dade County, said Nichole Hefty, chief of Miami-Dade County’s Office of Sustainability.

“There is never going to be a line item that would be coverage for rising sea levels,” she said.

While developers continue to build and sell homes in the expected flood zone, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find a lender willing to finance these sales.

Executives at BankUnited in Miami Lakes, Fla., announced in January that the bank had stopped offering retail residential mortgage loans, effective immediately. The announcement did not reference sea level rise or climate change.

“One of the biggest needs we have in this community is affordable housing, and when you have the biggest South Florida-based bank backing off residential mortgage lending that raises eyebrows,” said South Florida banking consultant Ken Thomas in a recent Miami Herald article. The article pointed out that Miami has one of the least affordable housing markets in the United States.

In the meantime, developers have been quietly purchasing property in the higher elevated areas, sometimes leaving low-income residents to migrate to other parts of the county or state. In a Miami neighborhood known as "Little Haiti," there have been reports of a “high level of intimidation” where residents feel “pressured to sell” to wealthy investors, said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, an advocacy group for recent immigrants.

She said immigrant families are equally impacted by climate change even if they don’t realize it.

“They don’t understand that they are under threat in Little Haiti,” Bastien said. “Those low-income families will be in the first line of fire in the case of sea level rising.”

Bastien said there was an informational meeting about the threat of rising sea levels and hurricanes for Little Haiti residents, but “there were more people from the county offices than residents” at that meeting.

“We don’t want that,” Bastien said.

“We are not against development. We are against land grabs that displace people who have lived there for years,” she said.

Rodrigues called this quiet displacement the first stage of “climate refugees” and has urged the county to take action against it.

“We are pushing the county to protect their way of life because there’s nowhere for them to go and they end up living in flood areas,” Rodrigues said.

Harvey Ruvin was chairman of a seven-member Miami-Dade citizen Sea Level Rise Task Force created in 2013. Ruvin, who serves as clerk of courts for the county, said officials are not simply waiting for the worst to happen while they hope for the best. There are efforts across the county to reduce Miami’s vulnerability to climate change.

The task force presented its report and recommendations to the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners in January 2015. The board unanimously approved the recommendations, but each part of the plan comes with a “price tag."

“The financial part of it is pretty daunting,” Ruvin said.

He said the county has been making progress despite those who still refuse to see climate change as a reality.

“We’ve heard a lot of denials. There are a lot of selfish people that don’t want to even know about it or say that they won’t be around for the effects of it,” Ruvin said.

On May 10, Ruvin sent a letter to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Carlos Curbelo advocating the establishment of a Federal Resiliency Superfund.

This letter said, “Providing financial assistance with an appropriate matching formula from state and local funding sources would be a huge value-added INVESTMENT. It would:

• Accelerate the development of adaptive success models, which could be employed “off the shelf” to scores of similarly situated localities elsewhere;

• Spur a much needed redesign and modernization of deteriorating urban and rural infrastructures across the nation, already in desperate need of updated re-engineering, notwithstanding sea level rise;

• Provide an infusive “jobs program” that would substantially enhance our economy at all levels and one that can’t be outsourced elsewhere;

• Provide a far-reaching damage prevention initiative helping to reduce the ultimate financial pressure on FEMA, and after the fact, damage compensation fund."

Ruvin called his proposal a “win-win” for local, state and federal government.

“These actions will make us sustainable instead of waiting for a payout for damages,” Ruvin said.

He pointed out that there are many plans at the local government levels to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but there needs to be a comprehensive approach for the entire shoreline.

“At some point these need to be blended together in a comprehensive approach because climate change has very little respect for municipal boundaries,” Ruvin said.

In January, the Center for American Progress published a report, “Miami-Dade in Hot Water: Why Building Equitable Climate Resilience is Key to Public Health and Economic Stability in South Florida.” In this report, the co-authors, Cathleen Kelly, Miranda Peterson, and Madeleine Boel, wrote that “climate change risks are not equally shared” among the various community members.

Six million people live in the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach in southeastern Florida.

The report said that in 2014, Miami-Dade alone had over 2.6 million residents, roughly half of whom were foreign-born. High levels of immigration are projected to continue, and the county’s population is expected to grow 18 percent by 2030 to 3.1 million people.

“You can’t talk about threats of climate change to Miami without talking about population rise,” Peterson said.

“Currently, close to 60 percent of Miami-Dade households are considered financially unstable, and one in five households live in poverty. Poverty levels are the highest among African American and Hispanic communities, which together make up 85 percent of Miami-Dade’s population,” the CAP report said.

“What would these households do if there was a hurricane? Really what would they do?” Peterson asked. “As far as federal disaster assistance, it doesn’t extend beyond a year. All of your wealth is in your home and you are planning to sell that home someday and retire with that money. What do you do when that home is destroyed in a hurricane?”

Peterson’s report recommended that county officials take the time to explain plans to reduce impacts of sea level rise to low-income residents while also gathering input from them about these plans.

“It can’t be a top-down approach. They need to be receiving input from the very beginning,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Task Force recommendations and the county’s 2013 GreenPrint Progress Report are steps toward a more climate-resilient county. But the county “has no master plan to track the impacts of these efforts or to communicate progress to the public,” the report said.

“Government officials in these areas need to show that they are being proactive, that they are in control,” Peterson said. “They need to embed those climate-risk strategies in the county’s comprehensive plan. It can’t just stay in the county’s sustainability office. The county needs everybody to be thinking about resiliency.”

Peterson said that effective climate literacy will promote a feeling of “we are all in this together” among the diverse communities of southeastern Florida. This proactive approach needs to go beyond the at-risk high income coastal areas impacted by sea level rise. Hurricanes are a constant threat for the entire area too.

“There isn’t a predication, but there is a strong possibility that it (a hurricane) will happen again,” Peterson said. “That’s why it’s important that the county and cities have a proactive approach to climate change to try to mitigate the risks.”

The CAP report might have caught the attention of local officials. According to a recent Miami New Times article, City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell plans to introduce a resolution that will mandate a “community representative who can specifically advocate for the needs of low-income and socioeconomically vulnerable communities” added to the city’s seven-person Sea Level Rise Committee, created in February 2015.

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