Little Haiti, Florida, is the town created by racism. Not too long ago, Black families in Miami were forbidden from buying any property near the beaches due to Florida’s Jim Crow laws. They settled on an undesirable piece of land between two railroad tracks, called Lemon City, where no one wanted to build. In the 1950s through the ‘80s, Haitian immigrants fled a despotic regime to come to the United States. The Black community here was one of the only places that welcomed them. Out of the terror, this community grew and became something beautiful and unique. If you haven’t gone yet, I highly recommend you visit—but do so soon. It may not be around much longer.
Gentrification, the practice of displacing current inhabitants with wealthier people, has been happening in cities across America since the 1960s, but it’s occurring in Miami faster than anywhere else due to climate change. In fact, environmental researchers have coined a new term from a recent study about the housing crisis in the coastal metropolis: “climate gentrification.” Miami is exploding in growth right now, on track to becoming America’s next megacity, thanks to a massive influx of people and its current skyscraper boom. Yet Miami was not only built in a high velocity hurricane zone, but on porous limestone, which means it’s extremely vulnerable to flooding.
Ironically, now the wealthy parts of South Beach and Miami Beach are the places facing development challenges. With even just 1 foot of sea level rise, they will be underwater. Our politicians may not believe in climate change, and our state employees were even banned from using that term; but the real estate developers who fund the political campaigns know it all too well. Because Little Haiti is 10 feet above sea level, this once redlined community is now a target for massive mega-developments. Unfortunately, the developers aren’t interested in revitalizing this community of 30,000 Haitian immigrants as much as they are in pushing them out. And because over 80% of the residents are renters, they just might be successful.
Haitians have proven to be historically resilient people; they’ve had to be. When Haiti was a French colony made up of slaves, they rebelled and overthrew their colonizers, becoming a republic in 1804. It is the world's oldest Black republic and one of the oldest republics in the Western Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, their entreaties to have allies and protectors in the region were quickly rebuffed, most notably by the United States, which at that time was heavily dependent on the slave trade. American newspapers from that era also expressed fear and contempt for the free Haitians, fearing a similar rebellion in the States. The U.S. has never really improved relations. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Haiti was ruled by a brutal dictator who forced many Haitians to flee to Florida. The new arrivals received far less federal protection and support than their Cuban predecessors. Most immigrants were sent back, only to be killed by the regime.
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For the ones who remained here, there weren’t many places they were allowed to go. One of the few places open to them was an extremely poor section of Miami next to Lemon City. This area would eventually grow to be called Little Haiti.
Residents here have struggled for generations, as they were forbidden from getting loans for homes or businesses. The economic bigotry has cost them dearly. Even today, the median household income is just over $25,000.
Yet despite the tremendous disadvantages, Little Haiti has grown to become an important, vibrant immigrant community. The area is definitely blue-collar and Caribbean, but it is now wedged between Miami’s very wealthy Design District, which is essentially a high-end outdoor mall, and Wynwood, which became gentrified in the mid-2000s.
When my wife and I first visited Miami in 2002, we were told by friends and neighbors to avoid this area because it was too “dangerous,” and that reputation has negatively impacted tourism here. Yet a local convinced us to go, and we have since made it a point to visit Little Haiti every time we visit Miami. It is nowhere near as developed as Little Havana, but there are still plenty of shops and restaurants that feature Haitian culture and cuisine.
We always spend time in the multicolored stalls at Little Haiti’s “Mache Ayisen,” or Caribbean Marketplace, where we leave with local artisanal products and fresh sugar cane juice. Last time we got to enjoy cremas, which is Haitian eggnog, because of the holidays. The marketplace sits right next to the Little Haiti Cultural Center, which features Haitian art, sculptures, historical artifacts, and offers classes like screen printing and Afro-Caribbean folk dancing.
We enjoy the colorful street foods, exotic shops, fresh fruit stands, and organic urban gardens. Sadly, the area’s impoverished reputation along with the impact from the COVID pandemic has put several shops we liked to visit out of business. Ironically, although the area might be poverty-stricken, the land Little Haiti sits on has suddenly become extremely valuable due to two factors.
First, Miami is having a renaissance—so many firms from New York and Los Angeles are relocating that it’s now being called Wall Street South. The influx of new businesses and relocation of other businesses means a lot of new buildings, jobs, and investments, but it’s also become a huge problem for locals. There are now record rent hikes in the city, with the cost of rent going up a colossal 45.8% since 2021, which gave Miami the record of the most rent-burdened city in America. This has forced residents to move to the outer parts of the city.
In addition to the high cost of living in Miami, the city is losing its battle with climate change. Despite spending billions on sea walls, elevated roads, and high capacity drainage pumps, parts of the city will be reclaimed by the ocean.
The rising groundwater table causes routine flooding due to the region’s porous limestone, which also affects the region's drinking water supply. Miami Beach sees flooding about eight times a year, but in less than a decade, it will be almost once a week. By 2060, portions of it will be permanently underwater. These sections of the city will have to be deserted because the cost will be too high to maintain. There’s even a name for it: “strategic abandonment.”
As a result, developers are pouring into urban areas further away from the coast. Elevated land has replaced beachfront property as the most desirable to build upon, and nowhere in Greater Miami is more elevated or desirable than Little Haiti. This poor, urban area is now the target of huge projects that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
This includes a behemoth called “Magic City,” a development that will take over seven blocks right in the center of the community. It will include 1,600 residential units, 1 million square feet of office space, almost 450 hotel units, and over 200,000 square feet of retail space. The same development team also wants to create a 25-story tower and a pop-up theme park designed by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte.
Sabal Palm Village is yet another mega-project within just 1 mile of the Magic City development. The plan for that includes 3,000 condos, 5,000 parking spaces, and over 300,000 feet of commercial space. Activists argue that in addition to speeding up gentrification and increasing traffic on the small, congested roads, these developments are completely out of scale with what has always been a small, residential community. For the developers, however, losing cultural identity or pushing out residents is not much of a concern. In fact, it has become clear that investors would prefer that the current residents, who are over 75% Black, just move away.
The problem is that residents here mostly don’t own their homes or the land surrounding them. Despite living here for generations, most residents are forced to rent, which means they not only won’t get any benefit from the real estate boom, but will be forced to move to an even more impoverished area. I tried to engage in a discussion about this with local residents, but most didn’t want to talk. I did find a local resident at Lakay Tropical Ice Cream, but she only spoke in Kreyòl, which is Haitian Creole. Her adult daughter, however, spoke fluent English. She said she wants to live close to family, but can’t afford decent housing close to home. Unlike the “trail of tears,” the government isn’t forcing residents to leave. This time, it’s the developers.
The medium home prices have already doubled, and new condos/apartments are costing triple in rent. As white flight from the beach communities increases, Little Haiti residents can no longer afford to rent or buy property in their own community. Obviously, the residents have little means with which to fight these mega-developments, even though they are trying. Even residents who do own their own homes, along with entrepreneurs who own their own businesses, have been under tremendous pressure to sell and do so quickly. They are bombarded with letters from firms telling them to relocate—literally. One resident read an unpleasant letter that opened with, “Dear Mr. Bien-Aime, It’s time for you to move.”
Local Haitian businesses are being pushed out. Schiller Sanon-Jules, a neighborhood shop owner, was forced to shutter his business selling Little Haiti merchandise after the owners of the property he was leasing doubled his rent. His 5,000 square foot store was packed with unique, high-quality clothing and artifacts from Haiti, but he was forced to give away or even throw out a ton of inventory and move to a tiny stall at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
It’s also worth noting that even if the businesses manage to survive, they will have a sharp decrease in clientele because the community they serve will no longer be there.
Meanwhile, developers just last December snatched up 20 properties on Little Haiti’s main commercial street during a massive foreclosure auction. This included an iconic live music venue that was shut down due to COVID. The cost of the sales have not been made available yet, yet pre-auction asking prices for one set of properties were in the neighborhood of $18.5 million.
“The water’s not here yet, but the sharks are already at the door.”
—Valencia Gudner, Community Organizer, Little Haiti
Just a few weeks after developers bought the large tracts of land surrounding the Little Haiti Cultural Center at the foreclosure auction, the city cited the center with two “unsafe structures” violations—a potential pretense for shutting it down. Residents noted it was a bit odd that the building is owned by the city, and in effect was citing itself for violating its own law.
City leaders insist it is not a ploy to demolish the center to make way for new development, but locals are skeptical. Nearby neighborhoods have already been completely gentrified, such as Wynwood, Biscayne Bay, and the Design District. The fear is that the Magic City plan will completely whitewash Little Haiti and turn it into another uber-wealthy district for Miami’s ruling class, while current residents get displaced.
The Magic City proposal originally included provisions mandating that the developers build set amounts of affordable housing and hire specific numbers of locals to work on the property, but shortly before the project was approved, those provisions were strangely left out. When called out on it, the developers instead agreed to simply donate a lump sum to an account run by Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon's office.
Too often, developers look at these communities they are invading as a problem that needs to be solved, as opposed to working with the community to make it mutually beneficial. Little Haiti residents are not under any illusion that they will be able to keep developers out, but it’s not binary. There are mega-projects and shopping districts all over the nation, but the reason people want to visit Miami is to experience the unique cultures and communities that you can’t find anywhere else.
By embracing the community instead of pushing it out, by building affordable housing so local residents can actually live and work there instead of forcing them into another area pre-Jim Crow can be mutually beneficial and profitable. If the real estate moguls would work with the community to make it a place everyone would want to (and be able to) live, work, and visit, they will have a profitable development venture while being a good community steward at the same time.
Fabienne Hypolite was waiting for her son while he finished up a class at the Cultural Center when I visited. She grew up in Little Haiti, and still rents. She had planned to buy a home in the area, but can no longer afford it. However, she told me she was cautiously optimistic about the new developments, and hoped it would bring jobs and opportunities. “We can’t stop them from coming, but I think it might be good. It’s been going on for a little bit now.” When I asked if she was worried about getting pushed out, she was defiant. “They will push us around if we let them. So we just won’t let them.”
Climate change is hitting South Florida especially hard right now, but it’s not the only impacted community. In Arizona, wealthier people are fleeing the unbearable heat waves in Phoenix and Tucson, where temperatures in the summer are averaging over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, to the northern oasis of Flagstaff.
Residents of Flagstaff say they feel overrun and are not happy about the soaring home and rental prices: “As it gets hotter, we are getting a lot of climate refugees,” said Coral Evans, Flagstaff’s mayor. “We don’t mind people moving to Flagstaff at all. But about 25% of our housing is now second homes. The cost of living is our number one issue.”
There are other examples as well. Houston residents left the city in droves after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey flooded the city, destroying over 200,000 homes and businesses. When they tried to come back, however, they were greeted with outrageous rent prices. Yet that is nothing compared to what happened to 100,000 New Orleans residents who were permanently displaced after Hurricane Katrina.
More and more communities are going to face this phenomenon sooner or later. We face a choice on how we will confront this now. That’s why this fight is so critical. What happens with Little Haiti can either serve as the first model for other communities across the nation to follow, or will serve as a warning of what may happen.