This story and the accompanying audio segments were produced through a collaboration involving journalists from Southerly, Climate Central and WLRN.
A little over four feet of elevation is all that’s standing between some waterfront neighborhoods winding through Miami Beach and the unrelenting force of the Atlantic Ocean. At Eighth and Washington, where Gregario Lopez, 81, lives in a Section 8 apartment, it’s even less. Lopez has been without regular income since 2010, when a bad fall left him injured and unable to work.
“I can’t afford big rent because my check is not so much,” Lopez said. He’s lived in the same apartment for a decade and has no plans to move. “I cannot pay $600 or $500 or $400, because $400 is almost half what I get.”
A shortage of affordable housing across the U.S. is a growing problem. In South Florida, it’s a crisis. The government defines affordable as costing 30% or less of a household’s income. In Miami-Dade County, about 60% of renters pay more, and 35% of homeowners spend over 30% of their income on housing. Coastal flooding and strengthening storms are threatening the few pockets of affordable housing.
The 15-floor building where Lopez lives is two blocks from the beach, vulnerable to storm surges and, according to sea level rise projections, built on land that could be underwater by 2090. Lopez likes living near the beach.
“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “It’s a close neighborhood and very, very nice people around me.”
But he has seen flooding get worse — and that’s expected to continue making housing like his more expensive to maintain and less viable to inhabit.
Miami Beach has more affordable housing units threatened by rising sea levels during the next 30 years than any other city in Florida, according to a new analysis by scientists at Climate Central.
Already, 27 of 317 affordable housing units are exposed to the risk of once-a-year flooding, and by 2050 that’s projected to increase tenfold. More than half will face flooding at least four times per year, making it harder for residents to access their homes, ushering corrosive bouts of seawater to the bases of the buildings, and pushing storm surges higher up their walls. Miami Beach ranks 11th in the nation for projected coastal flood risks facing affordable housing units in 2050, while Florida’s affordable housing stock ranks fifth among the states.
As the city continues to expand, economic risks that put those housing units at jeopardy are growing with it. It’s a threat policymakers, activists, and residents say they are taking seriously. Nonprofits and city planners are working to create more affordable housing, but they’re up against legislation that rewards rampant development.
“I personally believe that housing is a human right and that people should have access to affordable housing,” said Zelalem Adefris, the vice president of policy and advocacy at Catalyst Miami, an organization that serves low-wealth communities in Miami-Dade County.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused an unemployment crisis across the state that left 2.7 million Floridians jobless, has increased the demand for the nonprofit’s services.
“Any time there’s an economic crisis, I think rent is probably the biggest single cost,” said Adefris. “We’ve definitely seen a lot of people on the beach and elsewhere looking for housing, worried they are going to get evicted.”
Residents have been vocal about flood risks they face and changes needed to keep them safe.
“Residents want the updates, they want the building to be safe,” said Ranata Reeder, executive director of the nonprofit South Florida Community Development Corporation. “They want their property to be safe. If they’re living there, it’s their home.”
Affordable housing spans a wide array of housing options targeted to low income households. This includes everything from privately owned subsidized housing, which is managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to Section 8 housing choice vouchers and public housing, or units available for rent below market rates. Federal and state governments, as well as some municipalities, subsidize rents in many buildings to provide units of affordable housing, often through these vouchers. But the number of families who are eligible usually far exceeds the number of vouchers and units available.
Affordable housing eligibility is determined by the median income of an area and is adjusted for the size of the household. In Miami-Dade County, where 48% of households are renters, the median income is $17,730. The demand for housing that costs a household less than 30% of income persists throughout the county, which has the highest number of low-income households in the state.
According to data from the Miami Affordability Project, a tool developed by the University of Miami, that tracks the entire inventory of affordable housing in South Florida, Miami Beach administers just over 3,000 subsidized units. Only 200 of these are public housing.
Much of that housing stock is older and not well suited to a region that floods more than it used to. More than half of the city’s units were built in the 1950s or earlier; most are low-rise, garden-style and much more vulnerable to flooding than high-rise buildings. Miami Beach has 21 affordable housing properties that receive federal funding; 3,310 residents reportedly use vouchers from the housing authority that cover a portion of rent costs. But there’s little money for upgrades or updates. Five of the 21 will lose their federal funding between 2022 and 2024 when subsidies expire.
Elderly residents make up most of the tenants in affordable housing units, according to the Miami Affordability Project. About 70% report having a disability. According to the city, about 91% of all voucher households are headed by people of color.
“Low-income families unfortunately find themselves in situations where they have to prioritize food or health care or transportation over floodplain location,” said Michelle Meyer, Director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center and assistant professor at Texas A&M University. “Right now we are working from a framework where we do not have enough affordable housing pre-disaster.”
That means when there is a hurricane or significant flooding, low-income households are often the last to recover. Affordable housing often isn’t rebuilt. In the wake of a storm, affordable rental units can also become scarce, as workers arrive to help rebuild and displaced families who’ve lost homes temporarily move in, driving up rental rates.
Meyer says strong incentives for developers from federally-funded programs to focus on low-to-moderate income people don’t seem to make much of a difference.
“If we don’t start addressing our extreme inequities and unaffordability or affordability of housing in our communities, then we’re on our way to a trainwreck,” Meyer said.
Longtime shortages — especially in the South
Across the U.S., the number of people who live in affordable housing is growing smaller every year. In 2019, more than 18 million households — 1 in 6 — spent more than half of their family income on housing.
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies published a 2019 report concluding that 31.5% of all U.S. households were paying more than 30% of their incomes on housing. In Miami, those numbers are even higher: 57% percent of Miami’s 94,638 households spend more than 30% of their income on housing, while more than 33% of 39,112 renter households pay more than half their income on rent.
The pandemic has made this harder on urban and rural areas, and it’s also hit city budgets hard. Experts predict there will be long-lasting effects on funding for improving the supplies of affordable housing, exacerbating problems caused by a history of racist policies. These include certain tax programs and redlining policies, which have contributed to economic inequality, particularly for Black and Latinx families.
A University of Minnesota study on economic segregation and gentrification found a pattern of growing poverty in the suburbs, especially in Southern states. And a National Low Income Housing Coalition study on racial disparities among renters found that 20% of Black households make 30% of their area’s median income or less. People of color are also more likely to rent, according to a 2017 Harvard paper.
With the exception of Virginia, every state government in the South prevents local governments from implementing rent control laws, according to the organization Local Solutions Support Center. Florida, Tennessee, and Texas have preemption housing laws that prohibit a requirement for new developments to include a percentage of units that are affordably priced.
Miami-Dade County has long struggled with an affordable housing shortage — made all the worse by the economic crisis of 2008, when many lost their homes or significant amounts of equity in their properties. When the market bounced back, wages failed to keep pace.
“You have a combination of the biggest population, the most renter households, expensive real estate and a lot of relatively low-wage jobs,” said Anne Ray, manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse at the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies. Founded in 1988 by the state legislature, the program provides county-by-county data on housing cost burdens.
The center’s data shows that Florida currently has a stock of 300,000 affordable rental housing units, 30,000 of which are for assisted living. The vast majority of Florida’s affordable housing stock are vouchers, according to Ray. She said Florida, and South Florida in particular, is failing to meet affordable housing needs.
A sign outside the Villa Maria building in Miami Beach
This has been a problem for decades, and over the past six months, county officials have spearheaded one of the largest renovations of a public housing development in the county’s history. This project follows Miami’s Affordable Housing Master Plan that proposes launching a bank to fund affordable housing builds and incentivizing the development of thousands of new properties annually for a decade. Success will depend on city commissioners’ buy-in, which has stalled for almost a year.
Ahmed Martin, executive director of the Miami Beach Community Redevelopment Corporation, a housing nonprofit, said they have 323 affordable housing units in the area, with only 16 vacancies. Their waiting list currently sits at 500 people. Thousands applied for public housing, low-income housing, and Section 8 housing choice vouchers during the city’s last application opening —almost a year and a half ago.
Advocates say COVID-19 makes the situation even more urgent.
“After this last year, the need is going to be greater,” said Adefris, of Catalyst Miami.
Gearing up for the flooding to come
Though Miami Beach saw no major damage from hurricanes this season, high tide and storm surge flooding is already a major problem. In November, Hurricane Eta submerged streets, keeping some residents confined to their homes for several days.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year warned that Miami, Key West and other places in Florida could see what previously were considered 100-year flood events occurring yearly within three decades.
Coastal flooding — which includes compound flooding, high-tide flooding and increasingly destructive storm surges — is also on track to intensify, according to Dr. Thomas Wahl, civil engineering and sea level rise scientist and professor at the University of Central Florida.
“If you think about a kid in the bathtub, it plays around, and if there’s only a little bit of water in the bathtub, we won’t see much inundation in our bathroom,” Wahl said. “But what sea level rise is doing is it just fills up the bathtub. And even if the kid doesn’t play around more or is more active, you will now see a lot more water on the floor.”
Florida has a history entrenched with battling the effects of climate change, as hurricane seasons have brought increasingly frequent and intense storms. Renters, who tend to have lower incomes than homeowners, are disproportionately impacted by disasters like hurricanes and floods, said Dr. Christopher Emrich, a hazard vulnerability researcher at the University of Central Florida.
Hurricane Irma destroyed nearly a quarter of the housing in the Florida Keys, including most of the area’s 7,500 mobile homes. A year later, thousands of people left Bay County after Hurricane Michael damaged three quarters of the area’s households. Rents rose in an area where 40% of the population were renters; 22,000 residents were left homeless in the weeks following the storm.
“One of the biggest things that the low-income housing community faces is that they are often not in control before, during or after a disaster,” Emrich said. “After disasters, they often have to start over, they often don’t have adequate insurance coverage. So they’re really susceptible to environmental hazards, including sea level rise.”
Earlier this year, a plan to add 1,300 affordable housing units to the Keys inched forward, but still faces state approval. In Bay County, on the Panhandle, construction has not yet begun on hundreds of subsidized, low-income housing complexes.
For Miami Beach to avoid a similar fate, existing and new affordable housing units need to be fortified against extreme weather and rising water levels — both fueled by climate-warming pollution.
Hurdles to adaptation and renovation
Miami Beach also shares a problem with the Keys: it’s a barrier island that needs to evacuate quickly, so there are limits on density.
“You just simply cannot have highly dense areas within areas that are coastal high hazard areas,” said Miami Beach planning director Tom Mooney.
Finding the space to build affordably is also a challenge, he said. Some of the city’s affordable housing buildings are in historic districts, which have strict building codes, and replacing vulnerable two-story buildings with higher, more resilient structures can drive up costs and rents.
According to Mooney, that means developers need to adapt, and not replace, the buildings. His team has linked up with architects and preservationists to help property owners keep older affordable housing buildings, while making them more sustainable and climate resilient. The project is still in early planning stages.
Progress is gradually moving forward. The city is drafting new codes informed by climate science that will regulate where developers can build. However, Florida lawmakers — many of whom are Republican, and some who have denied climate science — are making this process more difficult. Last year, state legislators banned local governments from requiring developers to include workforce housing in projects or keep rents on some units lower, even as rents keep rising in Miami Beach and other areas around the state.
It’s even worse for those living in what developers may deem premium elevation areas — where rising rents mean low-income residents are being priced out of neighborhoods they’ve long called home, a trend often called “climate gentrification.”
Little Haiti and Liberty City — working-class, mostly Black and immigrant neighborhoods — are experiencing an unprecedented building boom. For instance, a billion-dollar project called the Magic City Innovation District is bringing luxury high rises, co-working sites and hotels to Little Haiti. The predominantly Black, low-income residents are being priced out: Since 2016, home values have increased by about 19%.
Former Miami Beach mayor Matti Herrera Bower said this is a widespread problem.
“Wealthy people can afford to live there while it’s good and move on once it gets bad. Whereas people with lower income, that’s the problem. They get shifted from place to place to place, and they get uprooted and don’t have a safety net,” Bower said. “It may be that Miami Beach becomes more affordable again as flooding gets worse.”
Bower, who sits on the board of the Miami Beach Housing Authority, has been a longtime advocate for affordable housing. She led the city from 2007 through 2013, and worked to preserve the Art Deco District and the Miami Beach Community Redevelopment Corporation.
Villa Matti, an affordable housing development constructed during Bower’s time in office, was named after her. It houses one of the units facing future coastal flooding identified in Climate Central research.
The Villa Matti affordable housing building in Miami Beach.
“To say that the rising sea level is the one that is killing affordable housing, I think is incorrect,” Bower said. “What happens is they’re using that to say ‘we need to tear down to build new,’ and then they get condominiums and get more and more higher rent or a higher price for the condominium. And that is what is happening now.”
While federal tax credits and state subsidies help persuade developers and private property owners to build affordable housing, the actual cost isn’t always so affordable. Projects can require upfront capital. And developers depend on loans or other sources of money to pay for construction that often require revenues to match costs for approval. Ensuring buildings are flood proof can be event more expensive: Elevating a single-family home can cost $100,000 or more.
Several local officials and advocates said regulation on development in South Florida is key to preventing this from happening in other areas.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get ahead of it [affordable housing demand],” said Miami Beach resilience chief Amy Knowles. “[But] I think that as we make improvements to our regulations into our buildings to address vulnerability from climate change, we can do the same thing for workforce and affordable housing.”
‘We just need to increase the supply’
Sara Haas is trying to take a grassroots, practical approach. Haas manages Enterprise Community Partners’ Keep Safe Miami program, an initiative in partnership with the South Florida Community Development Coalition and the Florida Housing Coalition. She and her team are preparing to audit properties for climate change risks.
“If they come to the table beforehand, and think about disaster recovery holistically with affordable housing at the forefront, or with the thought that there are vulnerable populations that need to be probably given better protections? That would really make a change,” Haas said.
The pilot launches next year. They’re hoping to get 75 property owners to sign up and, if it works, they aim to expand. It’s a step in the right direction for South Florida, but on its own, it’s not enough.
Anne Ray, the Florida Housing Coalition board member and University of Florida housing researcher, says the responsibility to create more resilient affordable housing falls to local and state legislators.
“We know how to create affordable housing. We do it all the time,” Ray said. “You don’t need to develop a new vaccine or put a man on the moon. We just need to increase the supply of affordable housing.”
Ayurella Horn-Muller is a freelance reporter and regular Climate Central correspondent, based in Florida.
Jenny Staletovich is WLRN’s environment reporter.