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In Miami’s gentrifying neighborhoods, Surfside condo collapse deepens fears of displacement

A lot for sale on Second Avenue in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami on July 2. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post )

MIAMI — When Linda Sippio learned that a high-rise condominium about 20 minutes from where she lived had collapsed in the middle of the night, she felt pain for the people who had perished — and for the survivors whose homes had been reduced to rubble.

The fourth-generation Floridian was born and raised on the same 10-block stretch in Miami as her parents, and in her 67 years, the retired middle school teacher has seen Black residents in her Liberty City neighborhood lose their homes time and time again.

In the mid-1900s, segregation and redlining left the community with a shortage of quality housing and schools. The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s ravaged the neighborhood, claiming the lives of scores of residents, including one of Sippio’s brothers. Director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney drew on their childhoods shaped by life in Liberty City for their Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight.”

In the early 2000s, gentrification crept into the community under the label of “urban renewal,” Sippio said, displacing many of the people she grew up with. It was in 2018, when she learned that developers were eyeing the neighborhood because its higher elevation afforded some protection from flooding that her activism started in earnest, and she joined dozens at protests outside government buildings.

Miami has always been subject to the whims of nature through hurricanes and tropical storms and more recently the compounding effects of climate change and rising sea levels, which have caused a 320 percent jump in nuisance flooding over the past 23 years. The problems have collided with a red-hot real estate market, which has driven developers further inland toward higher elevation.

“Housing has always been a problem around here. Always,” Sippio said. “Now they’re trying to move us down South, where the flooding happens.”

Search for Florida condo collapse victims nears end as more bodies are identified

The sudden collapse of Champlain Towers South, an oceanfront condominium in nearby Surfside last month, has shaken Miami, spurring debate over outdated building codes, poor maintenance, and high rises built on barrier islands. While no cause has been determined for the collapse, the tragedy has raised concerns that the rising sea levels and flooding which have long exerted pressure on Miami’s coastal properties are being further exacerbated by climate change.

In gentrifying communities like Liberty City and nearby Little Haiti — traditionally Black and Latino neighborhoods that are located inland and on higher ground — the tragedy has also stirred anxiety over a burgeoning trend that academics and activists have called “climate gentrification.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) discusses the range of concerns she has heard from families this week, and where federal laws could be strengthened. (Video: Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

A 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that home sales and prices in coastal, low-lying areas of Miami have been tumbling since 2013, while sales and prices in areas more insulated from the effects of climate change have surged. Since 2010, average home prices in Little Haiti have tripled, according to data from Zillow, the online real estate marketplace. Evictions and rents in Miami have also climbed faster in places less at risk of flooding, another recent study said. As city officials continue to greenlight high-end developments in Liberty City and Little Haiti, longtime residents and business owners report that they’ve faced mounting pressure to leave.

“Without a doubt, we’re anxious,” said Paulette Richards, a longtime Liberty City resident, “it’s been our struggle, having our neighborhood taken over.”

Richards said in recent years she has received as many as 10 inquiries in a single day from “piranha” real estate agents looking to buy her house. Less than a week after the Surfside collapse, she said, she found several new pamphlets stuffed into her mailbox asking if she is selling. She said the targeted solicitation, which sometimes includes street-view pictures of her home, borders on harassment.

She worries that the Champlain Towers collapse could drive even more interest in higher-elevation neighborhoods like hers. A county mandated audit following the collapse has already prompted officials to declare some buildings structurally unsafe and order evacuations.

“The [Realtors] don’t care whether you have elderly people or grandchildren or sick people, or if you’re just a new family,” said Richards, who cares for a great-grandchild with chronic illnesses. “They just want your house.”

Mallory Kauderer, a developer in Little Haiti since 1999, said he’s cognizant of the concerns from residents and advocates. But he said decade-old amendments to the city’s zoning code are what make the neighborhoods so attractive for developers — they offer a bargain.

“Climate change is a critical issue, but the elevation of Little Haiti and Liberty City has zero to do with why people are buying there,” he said. “They are undervalued areas with good zoning that were previously missed over — that’s the reason.”

Kauderer, who specializes in commercial properties, acknowledged that gentrification is a problem in the area and said neighborhoods across the city are in dire need of more affordable housing options. He said he’s tried lobbying other developers working on larger projects in Little Haiti to contribute toward affordable and workforce housing.

“I understand the importance of it, keeping communities vibrant, but market forces are market forces,” said Kauderer, adding that he also gets calls asking whether he’s interested in selling his Miami Beach home. “I’m very happy when I see a local person sell their property for lots of money. They should be happy to have that choice — if they want to sell, they will.”

Miami’s housing market had already left low-income residents with few options. Since the Surfside collapse, real estate agents say they’re fielding calls from jittery buyers having second thoughts about their waterfront properties or pulling out of deals entirely.

Real estate agent Belinda Sime was set to close on the sale of a unit in a building three miles from Champlain Towers South when her clients called, worried about the safety of their 10th floor condo. “They were like, ‘Belinda, what do you think? Do you think we’re making a mistake?’ ” Sime said. She quelled their concerns by saying what happened in Surfside was rare but expects calls like this one to continue among buyers.

Environmental activists say Surfside isn’t likely to prompt a rapid exodus of residents from the waterfront, but the disaster could drive insurers to hike prices for properties or encourage developers to look for prospects inland. Even before the Champlain Towers collapse, flood insurance for beachfront properties had soared as massive “king tides,” along with rising sea levels, made flooding on sunny days routine along Miami’s coast.

“Whether you believe in climate change or not, you could see it,” Sime said.

“People didn’t always think so, but the land here is prime land,” Sippio said one recent afternoon, sitting on the front porch of her mother’s single-story house in Liberty City, which has seen its property value increase more than twelvefold since she bought it in the 1970s. Like the rest of the houses in this neighborhood, the Sippio home sits about 10 feet above sea level and rarely floods.

“People aren’t going to come all at once,” Sippio said. “But they’re coming.”

Danny Agnew, founder of the Roots Collective Black House in Liberty City, said he has been talking to other business owners about how to start buying the property that the business operates out of so they can avoid being priced out by skyrocketing rents.

“We understand that the fuse that has been slowly burning could start to get a lot faster now,” Agnew said. “So we’re scrambling on our end.”

In the early 2000s, when Miami tore down the James E. Scott public housing project in Liberty City, Sippio and her neighbors took overnight shifts guarding one of the buildings that came to be known as the “Last Scott Standing.” The building was eventually roped off by police as developers gutted the rest of the housing project and replaced it with new privately managed single-family homes. It remains in the neighborhood, adorned with a mural of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a banner calling for justice.

In 2015, when the city said it would convert the 78-year-old Liberty City Housing Projects where Sippio grew up into mixed-used residences with market-rate units alongside affordable housing, she found herself back on the protest line again.

City officials say the $300 million project will help to revitalize the neighborhood, but Sippio is skeptical. Two phases of the renovation have been completed, with rows of three-story residences enclosed within gates. When completed, the complex will have just under 1,500 units, about 640 of them reserved for public housing and the rest split between affordable, workforce and market-rate units.

Sippio said she doesn’t know anyone from the old housing project, known locally as the “Pork ‘N Beans,” who has moved into the new residences. In a neighborhood where about one-third of residents live in poverty, she added, she’s not sure several hundred public housing units is adequate.

Now, when she drives past the area, covered with tarp and scaffolding, she has flashbacks to what used to be there. The concrete tub behind the pastel-colored houses where her mother used to do laundry; Mr. Green’s store, where kids would buy bubble gum to chew in church; the quiet street that would close during Christmas so kids could try out their new roller skates. Sippio said she sees the lively, striving community from her youth — one that no longer exists.

Black residents originally congregated in Liberty City because they weren’t welcome elsewhere, Sippio said. Until the 1960s, Black residents were barred from most of the waterfront communities, and there was only one beach where they were allowed to visit. So even though she and her siblings lived less than nine miles from the beach, they, like most Black children in Miami at the time, learned to swim in canals or not at all, Sippio said.

“After all that, now, they want to come here?” she said, furrowing her brow. “Where’s the justice in that?”

Liberty City residents point to neighboring Little Haiti as an example of what could lie in their future.

Some of the land in Little Haiti sits seven to 14 feet above sea level, making it among the highest points in South Florida and particularly desirable for real estate speculators cautious of changing conditions along the coast, said David Winker, a business lawyer who has represented communities in the area.

“We’re seeing developments in areas we’ve never seen before,” Winker said. “If anyone tells me developers bought there for any reasons other than climate gentrification, I’d call them liars.”

Caroline Lewis, the founder of Miami-based nonprofit CLEO Institute, which offers educational resources about climate change, said she’s heard of developers knocking on doors in Little Haiti, targeting residents who are behind on their taxes or have liens on their property and offering low prices in cash to relocate them. In some cases, developers have hired Creole speakers to specifically target Haitian immigrants, she said.

“It’s almost over,” Jan Mapou, 80, said one recent afternoon from his bookstore in the heart of Little Haiti. “All these vacant lots have already been bought or are up for sale. … Developers are buying everything they can get their hands on.”

“People have been seeking higher ground for years,” Marleine Bastian, a community organizer, chimed in. “Surfside is not the trigger, it’s just the accelerator.”

Both Mapou and Bastien moved to Miami in the 1980s, along with a wave of Haitian immigrants seeking refuge from political turmoil in their homeland. After helping to lead a 16-year fight to establish Little Haiti as an official neighborhood, their portraits were painted on a large mural near the area’s famous Caribbean Market.

Speaking in English and in French, the two friends said that until 2010, Little Haiti was a vibrant community that spanned more than 50 blocks — from 36th to 87th streets. Over the past decade, the southern border has been pushed inward to start at 54th street. Haitian-owned restaurants and shops have been priced out, they said, replaced with glass and concrete buildings with little connection to the neighborhood’s history.

In 2019, Miami lawmakers approved an 18-acre residential district in Little Haiti — known as Magic City — despite an outcry from residents and activists who said the proposal failed to sufficiently meet the community’s needs. The zoning plan for the project allows for 25-story buildings, even though much of the area consists of one- to two-story businesses and low-income housing. In documents submitted to city officials, the developers behind the project said its location on a “high coastal ridge will help to protect the Magic City SAP campus from flooding and potential future sea level issues.”

Little Haiti resident and activist Warren Perry sued the city over the project in 2019, but was unsuccessful.

Nearly every day, Mapou said, he has to turn down developers calling to ask if he’s interested in selling his bookstore, which specializes in Creole books on Haitian history, folklore, religion and politics. In the last 30 years, Bastien said, her nonprofit Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, which offers wraparound services to Caribbean immigrants, has had to change locations five times because of surging rents. The building that housed her first office is now a three-story commercial complex with a gelato shop and indoor gym.

“We’re boxed into a little quadrant and even here, in this small corner, we have to fight for the right to stay,” she said, shaking her head. “Little Haiti, Liberty City, West Coconut Grove. People who built up neighborhoods are being pushed out. Don’t we have a right to live?” she asked. From behind the cash counter, Mapou shrugged, his white beard peeking out of his face mask.

In Miami, Haitian immigrants sometimes reference the traditional “Lakou” system of extended families living together and caring for one another as part of what gave rise to the vibrancy of the neighborhood, Bastien said. As she left Mapou’s store, he gave her a box of mangoes freshly plucked from his tree at home and a stack of the local newspaper. She picked up a CD of Haitian saxophone music from a vendor on her way out and stuffed the business cards she had gotten from residents throughout the day into a small purse.

“That’s what we’re trying to preserve here. Lakou,” Bastien said, balancing the mangoes and newspapers on one arm.

“We built this place up. We took a blighted area and we transformed it,” she continued. “We deserve to stay.”