How a Black Miami neighborhood became ‘ground zero for climate gentrification’
Aaron McKinney was optimistic about the future of Liberty City.
In 2015, authorities in Miami-Dade county revealed a $74 million initiative to renovate the historically Black community located in the north-west part of the city. The proposal involved demolishing Liberty Square, the run-down housing development in the center of the neighborhood, and constructing 1,900 modern apartments in its location.
Officials stated that none of the approximately 600 families residing in the project would be forced to relocate. McKinney, who was raised in Liberty City, was employed by the Related Group, the organization in charge of managing the project. He was responsible for facilitating communication between his community and the company and addressing any worries or objections from residents regarding the project.
In 2021, only around 200 families from the housing projects were moved to new units. According to him, the majority of the finished units were rented out to new residents who could afford market-based rents. Feeling disheartened, McKinney resigned.
McKinney, 37, stated that numerous individuals had departed the website and the project would not have the expected impact on people. This is a classic illustration of areas that were previously ignored but have now become sought after.
One of the main reasons developers are currently drawn to the Liberty City neighborhood is because when it was developed as a public works project in the 1930s, the land was relatively inexpensive. This is largely due to the fact that the community is located five miles inland and sits approximately 10ft above sea level.
‘The neighborhood never floods’
Adrian Madriz, a resident of Overtown, a neighborhood in Miami that is experiencing rapid change, stated that Liberty City is at the forefront of climate gentrification. He also noted that despite heavy rain, the area never experiences flooding.
The recurring displacement of marginalized communities of color is a common story in various cities in the United States. However, the urgency of the climate crisis has sped up this process in Miami, a city known for its flat topography. According to experts, sea levels are projected to increase by 10 to 17 inches above the levels recorded in 2000 by the year 2040.
Recently, the value of properties in certain coastal neighborhoods has remained relatively unchanged. According to Zillow, a popular real estate website, the average value of homes in Miami Beach was $527,807 in December 2023, showing a slight increase of 0.4% compared to the previous year. In Liberty City, where the average home is valued at $380,255, Zillow reported a significant rise of 12.2%.
Marvin Dunn, a retired professor at Florida International University and author of four books on the history of African Americans in Florida, stated that the impending threat of rising sea levels has led to a desire for relocation among residents. This could result in a westward movement and an influx into Black neighborhoods in Miami.
According to a study conducted in 2023, by the end of the century, approximately 13 million people in the US could be displaced due to sea-level rise. This number includes 1 million residents of Miami.
A new feature-length documentary titled “Razing Liberty Square” by director Katja Esson delves into the topics of Liberty City and climate gentrification. It will be airing on PBS on Monday and follows the efforts of community members and housing advocates to prevent widespread displacement caused by developers’ plans for the neighborhood.
She stated that there was a sense of optimism surrounding the redevelopment project as the developer had made a commitment to allow community members to remain in their homes.
Esson views Liberty City as a warning for other communities with a high population of Black and Brown residents, who live on land that is currently desired by real estate developers.
According to her, climate gentrification is a harmful phenomenon where the effects of climate change lead to the displacement of impoverished individuals and the alteration of their local areas. She believes that residents should have a say in the revitalization of their community and that it should not be imposed by outsiders.
Esson was inspired to create the documentary after watching the award-winning film Moonlight in 2016, which takes place in Liberty City. She interviewed various low-income families of color who moved out of the area after receiving housing vouchers in order to search for housing in the private market.
Esson, who worked on the film for six years, described that moment as the most significant turning point. She explained that a large number of individuals accepted the vouchers, resulting in decreased protection for residents. As a result, these residents are now vulnerable to annual rent hikes from their new landlords.
Certain members of the community expressed concern that the use of vouchers removed any motivation to stay in Liberty City and wait for the completion of construction. Valencia Gunder, an advocate for climate and housing in the area, stated, “This clearly shows that our local government deceived us. They promised that no one would be forced to leave the neighborhood, but the vouchers ended up causing displacement.”
The previous leader of the public housing authority in Miami-Dade county, Alex Ballina, supported the choice made by his predecessor to provide vouchers. He explained that a group of Liberty City residents specifically requested them through written communication. Ballina stated, “There were some residents who opposed this decision. They wanted to relocate and they did so.”
According to county records, 213 families chose to use the vouchers. An additional 116 households declined the opportunity for new housing and instead relocated independently.
I was expecting something superior to this.
Several individuals who relocated to the newly constructed units have criticized the Related Group for subpar craftsmanship. “I was promised something better, but I could see from the way they were constructing these units that it was all going to fall apart,” stated Samantha Kenley, a mother of seven residing in a subsidized four-bedroom apartment.
Kenley has reported that the leaky ceilings in her first-floor apartment have been fixed on three separate occasions. However, despite this, water still seeps in from the windows and corners of the rooms during thunderstorms. This has resulted in the growth of mold and rust. She is aware of at least five other neighbors who have also experienced issues such as mold, cracked walls, and porous ceilings.
Ballina has acknowledged the concerns expressed by the residents. He stated that “[The Related Group] clearly did not prioritize the daily management and upkeep” of the recently built apartment units. He also noted that the hallways were unclean, there were visible cracks in the exterior stucco, and some of the door hinges were in poor condition.
Ballina stated that the aforementioned issues are currently being resolved by the property management division of the developer. She also acknowledges Esson for bringing attention to problems that had been disregarded for an extended period of time.
He stated that the documentary has emphasized the need to thoroughly analyze public housing revitalization initiatives in order to ensure they achieve their desired goals. He also expressed the importance of being more proactive in managing and maintaining the housing.
Requests for comment from The Related Group went unanswered.
Kenley, who is 39 years old, was raised in the previous residential development. Despite its reputation as a crime-ridden area, she felt a strong bond with her neighbors. “Everyone was familiar with one another, but now, you won’t know your neighbors unless you make the effort,” she explained. “I miss the feeling of being part of a community.”