Climate Change: Miami’s 1st Settlers Had It Right
More buyers may factor climate change into a decision, much like early settlers. Even Henry Flagler opted for development only on high ground.
MIAMI – Miami isn’t known for its majestic mountains. The tallest peaks in the South Florida landscape, in fact, are a series of landfills. The highest point south of Lake Okeechobee is the dump at Monarch Hill Renewable Energy Park, better known as Mount Trashmore, which towers 225 smelly feet above northern Broward County.
But there are natural bumps and ridges of limestone that gradually rise and fall along the length of South Florida. In Miami-Dade County, the tallest of these slopes soar to the dizzying height of about 20 feet above sea level. At these alpine altitudes, you’ll find strange things not seen anywhere else in Miami: mountain biking trails, underground cave systems, even houses with basements.
Miami-Dade County’s most intriguing high points
The highest points in Miami-Dade County are unmarked and largely unnoticed. But high ground has played an outsized role in the history of South Florida’s development – and, more importantly, offers clues about how climate change could shape the region’s future. Starting with its real estate market.
The scientists who study South Florida’s limestone ridges say there’s a warning hidden in the rock beneath our feet. All of it formed underwater, at a time when South Florida was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Now, sea levels are rising. One day – it’s hard to pinpoint when – even our highest ground may be underwater once again.
“Everybody thinks this is a God-given sea level,” said Harold Wanless, who heads the University of Miami’s geology department. “There’s nothing special about where the sea level is right now.”
As the tides inch higher and flooding becomes more common, more developers and homebuyers are starting to seek out land at higher elevations. The past also provides a lesson there: High ground has long been some of the most desirable real estate in Miami.
That’s why Miami-Dade County’s highest ground is home to the oldest houses in Miami and some of the earliest evidence of human settlement south of Lake Okeechobee. “High ground is essentially where settlers were forced to live until the Everglades began to be drained in the early 1900s,” said Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami.
But as housing prices rise, some community groups are warning about the risk of climate gentrification, a process that pushes out poor residents living in higher and drier neighborhoods to make way for wealthier renters and buyers who want a home that’s safe from flooding.
“The climate-driven component of gentrification is creating a situation where it’s raising the cost of living, it’s really squeezing people and it’s forcing them out,” said Paul Namphy, lead organizer and political director at the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a community advocacy group based in Little Haiti.
Homeowners on the high ground
Waterfront properties, despite being vulnerable to hurricanes and sea rise, are still some of the most desirable and expensive real estate in South Florida. But in recent years, buyers and renters have become more interested in high ground, and government agencies have given them more tools to research their homes’ elevation and flood risk.
Miami-Dade County publishes extremely detailed elevation data online. The data comes from lidar drones, which fly overhead bouncing laser beams off the ground to map the county’s topography. The Miami Herald consulted this data to identify the county’s highest points for this story.
Broward and Palm Beach counties don’t publish the same level of detailed data, but county records and research carried out by the county highpointers, a niche group of hobbyists who travel the U.S. climbing the highest points in every county, confirm that Broward’s natural highest point is 29 feet above sea level at Pine Island Ridge and Palm Beach’s highest point is about 50 feet above sea level somewhere in Jupiter, within the gated community of The Bluffs. Florida’s highest point is 345-foot Britton Hill in Walton County in the Florida Panhandle.
Move over, Everest climbers. The rarest peaks to scale may be in Miami-Dade County.
Potential homebuyers and renters can also use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, a free tool that lets you see what parts of your neighborhood might flood – or sink beneath the water – under future climate change scenarios.
Reid Grier, the president of a senior care company called Right at Home, consulted NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer when he bought a home near Coral Gables at one of the highest points in Miami-Dade County in November 2020. As Grier raised the hypothetical sea levels by one foot, then two, then 10, he saw water surge in from the coasts and spill out of canals. But the water didn’t touch his future home, which is built 20 feet above sea level.
“It essentially showed our block being one of the few remaining pieces of land above water,” Grier said.
Grier has family in Houston and he saw the destruction after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city in 2017. He didn’t want to buy a house that faced the same risk. “The fact that we are far enough away from the coast and outside of any flood risk area,” said Grier, “it just gives us peace of mind.”
A.J. Barranco, a lawyer who has lived at another one of the county’s highest points in Coconut Grove since 1978, learned just how valuable elevation can be during a major hurricane. Barranco’s house is perched on a limestone bluff overlooking South Bayshore Drive, which protected it when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992 and created a storm surge along the coast of Biscayne Bay.
“The houses down below me were all flooded. There were sailboats on South Bayshore Drive,” Barranco recalls. His front lawn was strewn with debris – oars, life vests, sails, flippers and so on. But his house, built 22 feet above sea level, was untouched except for a little flooding in the basement. “I’ve always felt very fortunate being this high up,” he said.
But others, like David and Michelle Diaz, only found out they were living at one of the county’s highest points when a Miami Herald reporter came knocking at their door. They bought their Kendall home 22 feet above sea level in 2020. “I had no idea,” said David, “but that’s pretty cool. Perhaps in the future, if we ever sell this house, we can use that as a selling point.”
The climate gentrification debate
Some research suggests that sellers are starting to do just that.
In 2018, a team of Harvard researchers led by then-design professor Jesse Keenan studied housing prices in Miami-Dade County and found that property values were rising faster for houses at higher elevations than for houses at lower elevations. They coined the phrase “climate gentrification” to describe how wealthy buyers and renters, hoping to avoid sea level rise and flooding by moving to homes on higher ground, could drive up housing costs and displace longtime residents in elevated neighborhoods like Little Haiti.
In response, the City of Miami passed a resolution directing the city manager to study climate gentrification and dedicated $4 million from the Miami Forever Bond to address the issue.
Gentrification has been happening in Little Haiti for decades, according to Namphy, the FANM organizer. But growing interest in high ground real estate has sped things up. “What we’re seeing is a climate component grafted onto an already existing gentrification process,” he said.
Climate gentrification became a rallying cry for local activists protesting the Magic City development in Little Haiti. Plaza Equity Partners plans to build 18 acres of apartments, hotels, shops and office space on the northern edge of a limestone ridge, where the elevation ranges from 10 to 17 feet above sea level.
The issue came up again in more recent protests against the Sabal Palm Village development eight blocks south. “The climate gentrification discussion is definitely front and center in both of those conversations,” Namphy said.
But in South Florida, development waves are as difficult to stop as the tides.
Elius Louima, 82, lives in between the Magic City and Sabal Palm Village development sites, in a house 18 feet above sea level – one of the highest points in Little Haiti. He moved there from the Bahamas in 1977 and has been renting his current house since 1985. He loves the neighborhood not for its elevation but for its community. “When you go out, neighbors look after you,” he said. “People are nice to each other.”
Louima said he started noticing new high-rises being built nearby around 2019, a year after the climate gentrification paper was published. He’s seen his rent rise from $400 to $1,000 a month since he moved in. “It used to be low,” he said. “Now everything’s going up.”
But, in Miami at least, the whole concept of climate gentrification is divisive. One common critique is that it’s hard to tell climate gentrification apart from regular gentrification. No one argues that rents aren’t rising in Little Haiti and forcing some residents out, but some researchers say they’re rising for reasons that have nothing to do with climate change. The neighborhood has cheap land, it’s close to the center of Miami, and nearby neighborhoods like Wynwood and the Design District have already gone through major cycles of gentrification.
“The thing is, you cannot distinguish the Magic City project in Little Haiti from the traditional gentrification process in Wynwood,” said Han Li, an assistant professor in the UM Department of Geography and Regional Studies who published an in-depth analysis of Miami-Dade County housing prices last year that critiques Keenan’s climate gentrification paper.
“As rents have risen in Wynwood and the Design District, people are running to Little Haiti and Little River to save money,” said Devlin Marinoff, a managing partner at DWNTWN Realty Advisors, a brokerage that is selling property five blocks from Louima’s house in Little Haiti. “I get calls daily about Little River and Little Haiti.”
Marinoff said the elevation of these neighborhoods still isn’t top of mind, at least for developers. “It does come up from time to time when we’re working on a deal, but I haven’t yet seen a situation where it affected the value or whether or not a deal was going to get done,” he said.
But that could change. Marinoff said he’s seen flood insurance rates quadruple for some of his commercial properties in low-lying neighborhoods. “At some point I would imagine that’s going to have an effect on the bottom line,” he said. “Has it at this point been a reason to break a deal? Not yet. Do I think that’s on the horizon? Absolutely.”
The historic value of high ground
Seeking out high ground was once a no-brainer in South Florida, according to HistoryMiami’s Paul George. In addition to the settlements they built along the Miami River, the Tequesta also lived on high ground near the Deering Estate and dry pine islands in the Everglades. Before the Everglades were drained, many of Miami’s wealthiest residents and early developers built on Dade County’s highest points to keep their properties safe from flooding.
Susana Baker lives in a Mediterranean revival mansion built in 1924 by a fruit farmer and Design District developer named Theodore V. Moore (known in his era as Florida’s “Pineapple King”). The house sits on a slight hill in Buena Vista 19 feet above sea level, which counts as high ground in Miami-Dade County.
“You can tell he was very wealthy because he purposefully made sure his home was on a hill,” said Baker. “So when there’s flooding, everyone else gets flooded, but we don’t.”
The same is true of Ralph Munroe, a wealthy yacht designer and the first commodore of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club who in 1891 built The Barnacle – the oldest house still standing in Miami-Dade County – on a limestone hill in Coconut Grove. Although the property slopes down to the water, Munroe put his home on high ground 18 feet above sea level.
Some of South Florida’s earliest modern development happened on high ground. The county’s first public library and one of its first schools were built in 1894 in Lemon City, a community built in what is now Little Haiti. When Henry Flagler built his railroad connecting Miami to the rest of the U.S. in 1896, he sent surveyors through South Florida to find the highest ground.
“That’s where they ran the railroad,” said George. “You just can’t operate a railroad on low ground that’s flooded.”
The construction of the railroad and nearby hotels gave some of Miami’s earliest black residents an opportunity to build homes on high ground, George said. Many of the black Bahamian and American workers who worked on these projects settled nearby on relatively high ground in what is now Little Haiti, Wynwood, Overtown and Coconut Grove – the neighborhoods where some of their descendants are grappling with gentrification today.
But, over the past century, George said South Floridians have become less concerned about building on high ground. After 1909, as canals were dug and the Everglades drained, it opened up new, once-flooded land for developers to build on.
“That’s why so much of Miami-Dade County and Broward County and parts of Palm Beach are 6 feet high or less,” said Wanless, the UM geology professor. “They were former wetlands, and then we drained the wetlands, lowered the water level and built the ground up to about 6 feet above sea level.”
The majority of Miami-Dade County – 56% – is 6 feet or less above sea level, according to county elevation data. Most of that land has been paved over and developed. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact expects sea levels to rise 3 to 8 feet over the next century, putting these low-lying areas at risk.
“As sea level further rises, they’re going to flood more easily, they’re going to drain more slowly, king tides are going to get at them more frequently and storm surges are going to be increasingly devastating,” Wanless said.
High ground may be temporary haven
If rising tides force South Floridians to retreat from the coasts and low-lying areas, the remaining high ground could become even more valuable. But even that haven may not last forever.
In the near term, coastal retreat might involve developers building high-rises on high ground and local governments focusing their infrastructure spending in those areas, according to Keenan, who is now an associate professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University. Cities like Miami would shrink to a smaller area built around pockets of high ground.
“That [high ground] is where you invest your first infrastructure dollars, and on the periphery is where those dollars begin to evaporate,” Keenan said.
A 2018 study from the Rand Corporation concluded that Miami-Dade County could avoid flood damage by “directing future growth toward areas of naturally higher ground.” Over the next 20 years, that development strategy would reduce the amount of property at risk from flooding by more than $100 million, the think tank calculated. A drive along the beachfront shows that idea hasn’t been embraced yet in South Florida.
High ground homeowners sometimes joke that if sea levels keep rising, their houses might become beachfront property.
“Maybe my descendants will inherit a private island one day,” said Grier, the senior care company president. Even if the ocean rises 14 feet by 2120 in line with NOAA’s extreme worst-case climate projections, Grier’s house, built 20 feet above current sea levels, will at least stay above water.
But it’s not clear how valuable a private island in flooded South Florida would be for future generations. Even the homes at the county’s highest points rely on streets and infrastructure built at lower elevations, which are vulnerable to just a few feet of sea level rise.
“You’re not going to have roads to get around on. You’re not going to have sewage treatment facilities. You won’t have garbage pickup. You won’t have a source of fresh water,” said Wanless. “All those things are the unfortunate reality of the future, and it won’t wait until sea levels have risen 20 feet.”
In other words, even the people who live on Miami’s highest ground have a reason to care about the 3 to 8 feet of sea level rise the Southeast Florida Climate Compact expects over the next century – and the uncertain level of sea rise South Florida will experience in the years that follow, depending on how quickly humanity cuts its carbon emissions.
“Everybody needs to understand that we’re all going to be impacted by this,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit climate advocacy group based in Miami. “Obviously, the most vulnerable are feeling the disproportionate impact, but at the end of the day, we’re all going to feel it.”
This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partner. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.
© 2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.