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Can Miami's 'Forever Bond' Be a Model for Fair Development in a Flood-Prone City?

Advocates in Miami are working to ensure that minority and low-income communities have a say in how to spend a $400 million bond that's poised to make the city more resilient to climate change.
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A person battles high winds and rain to take pictures of the flooding along the Miami River as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10th, 2017, in Miami, Florida.

A person battles high winds and rain to take pictures of the flooding along the Miami River as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10th, 2017, in Miami, Florida.

For years, the climate outlook in Miami has been ominous: Up to 20 times annually, on otherwise perfect beach-going days, whole blocks of the city flood. Streets and homes are inundated in inches or feet of seawater, as the ocean swells during king tides throughout the year, a phenomenon known as "sunny-day flooding." The situation sounds dire, yet the floods happen so often and predictably that, as Elizabeth Kolbert noted for The New Yorker in 2015, "if, out of curiosity or sheer perversity, a person wants to, she can plan a visit to coincide with an inundation."

The sea in Miami-Dade creeps into storm drains before it spills onto pavement; it seeps up through holes in the limestone under the land. It poses serious health issues—the water is polluted with fecal matter and more—and the ever-rising sea level also threatens the economic well-being of the region. Researchers have estimated that properties in Miami that are flood-prone or flood-adjacent have already lost over $125 million in property value since 2005, a figure that they project will more than double in the next 15 years.

Over the past decade, flood events in Miami, one of the most vulnerable cities in the country to sea-level rise, have increased in frequency by 400 percent. With no choice but to adapt, Miamians in 2017 voted to allow the government to allocate a $400 million bond called the Miami Forever Bond. The purpose of Miami Forever, according to the state government's website, is to "build a stronger, more resilient future for Miami," and the bond distributes the money across five categories: flood prevention, roadways, parks, public safety, and affordable housing.

In theory, it's a laudable plan. Natural disasters like Hurricane Irma, which was the largest hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, are only going to become bigger and more destructive as the climate changes—and mitigating climate change isn't going to be enough to protect communities. Adaptation, or "resilience" (as the bond frames it), will prove to be of increasing necessity as the years go on: With even just one foot of sea level rise, a fifth of Miami will be underwater.

Even so, the Miami Forever Bond didn't receive a full endorsement from local climate and community advocacy organizations when it went on the ballot in 2017. Before the public voted on the bond, the Miami Climate Alliance, a climate and equity advocacy umbrella group, endorsed the bond but wrote in a letter to the city's then-mayor that "history has left us skeptical that the bond program will be implemented in an equitable fashion and without negative impacts to vulnerable populations."

Miami consistently has some of the most pronounced income inequality in the country. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 26 percent of its residents live below the poverty level, well above the national average of about 15 percent. In years past, advocates expressed frustration at city leaders' failure to address inequality. In 2016, Natalie Delgadillo reported for CityLab that Miami's yearly budget didn't include line items to aid low-income communities and address climate change—provisions that advocates had repeatedly asked for in meetings with and letters to city officials.

Locations of the two affordable housing projects that have been announced so far through the Miami Forever Bond. Purple areas are flood-prone areas, according to Miami-Dade County's flood zone map.

Locations of the two affordable housing projects that have been announced so far through the Miami Forever Bond. Purple areas are flood-prone areas, according to Miami-Dade County's flood zone map.

Now that the bond is in effect and has launched its first round of projects, advocacy organizations like the MCA are working to ensure that the bond doesn't maintain the area's notorious inequalities—and so far they say they've been successful. Years of organizing, letter writing, and meetings with officials have led to "significant wins" for the Alliance in the city budget, as WLRN reported last year, and that’s helped them gain some influence in on bond issues too. One of the guiding tenets of the bond is equity, and "as advocates, we're trying to make sure that the city holds itself to the true meaning of those tenets," says Zelalem Adefris, who works on climate and equity issues for the MCA.

Advocates at MCA and Catalyst Miami, which aims to represent and empower low-income communities, have held several community town halls to gather questions and concerns from community members that advocates could then relay to the city. A town hall early in the process (Adefris estimates that 50 people attended) pushed city officials to ensure that the Miami Forever Citizens' oversight board would actually represent the interests of the community: The group wrote to the city commissioners, asking that board members be required to have no conflicts of interest with the bond projects and to live in the city, and that at least one board member have a degree in a relevant field. These stipulations were ultimately put into the ordinance that established the board.

For its part, the city seems to be trying to accommodate as many perspectives as possible.

"We see [building resilience] as a challenge that is big, it's grand, but, at the same time, it's solvable if you get the right people on board," says Steve Williamson, director of Miami's Office of Capital Improvements. In particular, he says, the "very, very, very active," parks department, which has its own advisory board, often seeks feedback from the community: When a new park is announced, they host at least three community meetings to vet the plan. Under Miami Forever, thanks to community demand, the department has created three parks in the traditionally underserved neighborhood of Little Havana.

Currently, the city is working on a plan for the $15 million allocated to affordable housing for this first round of projects. As residents flee low-lying, flood-prone areas, higher-elevation neighborhoods like Little Haiti in northern Miami are becoming climate gentrified, meaning that poorer residents may be forced out of these more elevated and increasingly coveted dry havens of the city. Built in the right areas, affordable housing can ensure that residents aren’t priced out of non-flooding neighborhoods as the sea continues to rise.

So far, only two projects, accounting for $3 million of the $15 million, have been announced, one of which will be in a flood zone, and one of which, three blocks away, will not.

Back when the first round of projects was announced, the MCA, citing the city's own equity guidelines, wrote a letter to city officials demanding they "ensure that the Miami Forever Bond projects are truly fair and that investments are made first in the communities that need it most." In the letter, the MCA asks the city to invest the funds in underserved communities first, and that the programs be income-based so as to not contribute to climate gentrification.

Williamson says that, with affordable housing, the "entire focus is intended to address those with the greatest needs."

The full plan won’t be released until later this year, though Williamson says that another component of the plan will be to upgrade houses of residents under a certain income level to be more storm- and flood-resistant.

Ultimately, according to Adefris, the goal for advocates is for Miami Forever "to be a model for adaptation investments in the city of Miami, both through the way they do community engagement and the way they incorporate equity." Advocates want to ensure that the city's process is fully inclusive.

"Having robust engagement and having a truly equity-centered process," would be a great start, Adefris says. "And that's a big enough ask for us just to focus on that."