High ground, high prices
How climate change is speeding gentrification in some of America’s most flooding-vulnerable cities
By Casey Tolan, CNN
Published 10:00 AM ET, Wed March 3, 2021
When Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Rose Dyson was one of the lucky ones. Her house, in a mostly Black, working-class neighborhood near the Mississippi River, was perched on some of the city’s highest ground — and while the floodwater devastated homes in other parts of the city, it never reached her doorstep.
But in the years after the storm, the topography that had saved Dyson’s neighborhood became a selling point. A wave of new residents moved in, investors snapped up dilapidated buildings and housing prices skyrocketed. When Dyson’s annual property tax bill hit $4,000 two years ago — more than 20 times the amount she said she paid when she first moved in — she decided she had to give up the home she had dreamed of growing old in.
“What I was paying went absolutely outrageous crazy — it was as if I had rebuilt the house and had a big mansion,” Dyson said. “I couldn’t keep up.”
Like many Black families in the area, Dyson was pushed out not by Hurricane Katrina, but by gentrification that followed in its wake. Her neighborhood, which has the second-highest median elevation of any census tract in New Orleans, went from 75% Black in 2000 to 71% White by 2019, according to Census data — one of the most dramatic racial shifts in the city over the last two decades.
Experts and local activists say the changes affecting the neighborhood are an example of climate gentrification — a process in which wealthier people fleeing from climate-risky areas spur higher housing prices and more aggressive gentrification in safer areas. As growing evidence finds sea level rise and flooding risk starting to affect real estate markets in the American cities most vulnerable to climate change, that trend could lead to residents being priced out of higher-ground neighborhoods, often in Black and minority communities.
“The people who made these neighborhoods desirable and created the culture that thrived there have been pushed out,” said Cashauna Hill, the executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “Black New Orleanians have been relegated to neighborhoods that are further from the city center, and neighborhoods that flood much more easily.”
In New Orleans, the share of Black population in Census tracts with the highest median elevations — those a meter or more above sea level — fell by more than a third between 2000 and 2019, according to a CNN analysis of Census data. Academic research has also found that higher elevation neighborhoods saw more pronounced economic gentrification in the years since the storm.
The city isn’t alone. Other climate-risky cities around the country are also seeing signs of gentrification, including Miami, where booming real estate prices in higher-ground, minority neighborhoods — like Little Haiti — have been tied to sea level rise.
Beverly Wright, the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, a New Orleans group that advocates for equitable environmental policies, said the gentrification she’d seen in her city was just one more example of the many ways climate change exacerbates racial inequalities.
“A lot of people feel that climate change is an equalizer, but it really isn’t,” she said. “We start from a place that’s so unequal, and it’s digging a deeper and deeper hole.”
High ground, high prices
While there’s been plenty of attention to how climate change will affect areas most vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding, a growing body of research argues it will also have dramatic second-hand effects on nearby areas that are more sheltered.
As people start leaving the riskiest areas — prodded either by cataclysmic events like Katrina or the nuisance of dealing with more regular flooding — higher-ground neighborhoods become more desirable.
“It’s a shift in people’s preferences about where they want to live,” said Jesse Keenan, a Tulane University associate professor who coined the term climate gentrification and has studied how sea level rise is affecting real estate markets. “Once you get a shift in demand, it’s hard to forestall that.”
In part, the trend will be spurred by retirees fleeing flooded properties that become costlier and more difficult to maintain, not necessarily the hipsters typically associated with gentrification, experts say.
“You don’t need to see bars opening up with bartenders wearing suspenders and handlebar mustaches to be seeing gentrification,” said Benjamin Keys, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor who has also studied climate’s impact on housing.
In New Orleans, the difference in elevation between the highest and lowest neighborhoods is just a few meters — but even those slight variations can save or endanger homes during floods.
The clearest example of climate gentrification in the city is in the strip of neighborhoods running along the northern bank of the Mississippi River, which have some of the highest elevations in the city. In the years before Katrina pummeled the city, the area included White and wealthy enclaves as well as more diverse, working-class communities such as the Bywater and the Irish Channel.
Many of those neighborhoods have changed dramatically. CNN’s analysis, based on US Census demographic data, found that the highest-ground areas — census tracts with a median elevation of a meter or more — shifted from about 58% White and 35% Black in 2000 to 69% White and 21% Black by 2019.
Meanwhile, the share of Black population decreased in some lower-lying areas of the city and increased in others, including parts of New Orleans East, which experienced some of the worst flooding during Katrina. Overall, the correlation between elevation and race became more pronounced from 2000 to 2019: higher areas tend to be more White, and lower areas more Black.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University also concluded that gentrification in New Orleans was strongly associated with higher ground elevation in a paper published last year.
Among census tracts that had lower median income than the city as a whole before Katrina, the areas with higher elevations were much more likely to see increases in income and education level and decreases in poverty, Johns Hopkins Assistant Professor Genee Smith and her co-authors found. On the other hand, lower-lying areas were among the least likely to see those changes.
“Following Katrina, people realized that homes in those communities were much less likely to suffer damage as a result of flooding,” said Hill, the housing activist. “This is a place where streets and homes flood just after a regular Thursday afternoon thunderstorm — people do whatever they can to protect themselves.”
Dyson, who grew up near the Irish Channel and bought her house there in 1993, fled to stay with a cousin in Baton Rouge during Katrina. As she watched TV coverage of her waterlogged city, “I was just imagining what my house was going to look like when I came back,” she said.
But her single-story, shotgun-style house escaped mostly unscathed, with no flooding. Dyson has fond memories of sitting on her front porch, watching neighbors go by on a street covered by an arching tree canopy.
“I loved the whole house, and the neighborhood,” she said. “Everybody pretty much knew each other.”
After she married and moved out, her son lived in the house. Dyson, a clerical worker at a nearby hospital, said she had hoped to retire there. But after her property taxes skyrocketed, she sold it in 2019 to an Illinois remodeling company and moved to a suburb across the river. Now, the house is in the middle of a gut renovation.
The broader Irish Channel neighborhood saw its typical home value more than double since Katrina, according to data from the real estate firm Zillow. That is among the largest jumps in home value in the city.
Buyers are circling many of the longtime homeowners who remain in the area. Tanesha Santemore has owned her brightly painted peach house since 1999. Now, she said, her phone rings with an investor who wants to buy it almost every week.
“I constantly get the calls, but I’m not selling,” she said. “This is my home, why should I give up what I worked hard for?”
Over the years, Santemore, who is Black, said that she’s been surprised to find herself a minority in her neighborhood. Some of the newcomers, she said, seem to treat her like she doesn’t belong.
“I’m like wait a minute — I’ve been here first,” she said.
Fleeing the floodwater
While the Irish Channel has experienced occasional flooding in the years since Katrina, it’s rarer than in other parts of the city. Some home listings in higher-ground, gentrifying neighborhoods proudly note that their properties are in FEMA flood zone X, one of the least risky designations in New Orleans — which means property owners aren’t required to buy flood insurance.
Lisa Julien, a realtor who grew up in the Irish Channel, said she thought that the neighborhood might have gentrified without the impact of Katrina due to its proximity to downtown, but that buyers have become more conscious about the threat of flooding and the costs of flood insurance.
“Most home buyers are now factoring in the elevation when they’re debating what their buying power is,” Julien said. “People are a little more sensitive to it now than they were a couple years ago.”
As a teenager, Julien’s mom decided to move out of the Irish Channel because she worried for her daughter’s safety there. Now, one of the homes she’s selling for more than half a million dollars — despite its dilapidated condition — is “around the corner” from the house where she grew up, she said.
Some of the people who moved to the area in the years after Katrina were fleeing other parts of the city more at risk of flooding.
Sarah Pinkney grew up in Gentilly, a northern New Orleans neighborhood that experienced widespread flooding in 2005, and her family’s home was ruined during the storm. So she was thrilled when she and her husband found a fixer-upper house in the Irish Channel a few years after Katrina.
“It was six feet above sea level — that’s a prize in New Orleans,” Pinkney said.
Over the years, the couple watched as houses up and down their block underwent expensive facelifts, a brewery moved in across the street, and friends got priced out of the area. “The neighborhood just blew up,” Pinkney said. By the time she moved out of the Irish Channel last year, leaving the city for a new job, it felt like a different neighborhood than the one she had originally moved to, she said.
Affordable housing projects in some of the high-ground, gentrifying areas of the city have been met with opposition from mostly White neighbors, according to housing activists. One project in the Bywater neighborhood, which would have built dozens of affordable units on a publicly owned empty lot, left neighbors fearing it would become an “isolating ghetto,” according to an op-ed by one resident opposed to the development. It was approved by the city council in 2019 — but only after being scaled down from its original plans, a compromise that the local council member argued would better reflect the scale of the neighborhood.
Local opposition to affordable housing leads to Black and poor New Orleanians being locked out of high-ground neighborhoods, according to activists like Breonne DeDecker, the program director at the housing rights group Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative.
“We’re talking about the safest land being reserved for speculators and tourists,” DeDecker said. “That’s not what equity should look like in the city.”
Evicted in Little Haiti
For decades, most weddings in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood featured at least a few guests wearing suits or dresses from Virgile’s Tuxedo & Bridal Shop, a tuxedo store on the north side of the neighborhood where most business was conducted in Creole. In 2018, however, the store’s building was sold to a new owner, who evicted the shop and other local businesses, redeveloped the building, and raised rents.
Now, the store’s former home is a sleek new development that includes a gelato shop, juice bar, and private coaching gym. And Virgile’s frilly wedding gowns and sharp suit jackets are crammed into a narrow storefront next to a highway overpass in North Miami, a 15-minute drive away — sharing a strip mall with a Pizza Hut.
Rollin Virgile, who’s run the tuxedo shop for more than three decades, said he couldn’t afford to stay in Little Haiti, and his business had lost more than half its clients after being priced out of the neighborhood he served. Now, the pandemic has also erased Little Haiti’s social calendar, causing a near-knockout blow to his business.
“No weddings, no parties, no graduations — only a few funeral rites,” he said, standing behind the counter of the empty shop. “It’s a struggle to stay in business.”
Like the gentrifying New Orleans neighborhoods, Little Haiti is among the highest-elevation areas in a city facing the brunt of climate change – and activists say that rising prices and new development are pushing locals like Virgile out.
Amid dire estimates of sea level rise inundating coastal areas in the coming decades, multiple studies have found that lower-lying areas in Miami or coastal Florida as a whole have started to see their real estate prices rise slower than higher neighborhoods.
Keenan, the Tulane professor, found that the value of single-family homes in Miami-Dade County that were situated one meter or less above sea level had increased at a lower rate than homes in higher-ground areas. Preliminary research he’s working on now suggests that in addition to home values, rents are also increasing faster in higher-elevation areas, Keenan said.
Another study, a working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research by Keys, the University of Pennsylvania professor, looked at coastal neighborhoods across Florida. The areas that had the most developed land that would be inundated at six feet of sea level rise saw declines in sales volume and, more recently, a leveling off in home values — while the least threatened areas did not.
If the divergence between lower- and higher-ground properties continues, it would have big implications for some of the higher neighborhoods perched on a limestone shelf running like a backbone parallel to Miami’s coast — including heavily Black and minority communities like Little Haiti, Liberty City and Allapattah.
Ironically, the land that was historically seen as less desirable – these inland, formerly redlined areas – will eventually be safer because of their high elevation, while some of the fanciest waterfront neighborhoods — more white areas like Miami Beach — could be inundated in a few decades, according to some projections.
Developers ‘come knocking’
In Little Haiti, the typical home value has nearly tripled since 2010, the highest jump of any neighborhood in Miami, according to Zillow data. Developers are moving forward with several big real estate projects in the area, including the more than $1 billion Magic City Innovation District, which aims to transform several blocks of warehouses and other vacant buildings into high-rise apartments, offices and retail.
The developers behind Magic City touted its elevation in documents submitted to the city government, saying its “location on a high coastal ridge will help to protect the Magic City SAP campus from flooding and potential future sea level issues.” But they’ve been met with strong opposition from local activist groups like Family Action Network Movement, which has fought the project at contentious city hearings.
“You have neighborhoods that have been disinvested in, and then suddenly you have these people who present themselves as they are the savior, they are Christopher Columbus discovering these spaces,” said Marleine Bastien, the organization’s executive director.
The development firm behind Magic City negotiated a $31 million community benefits agreement for affordable housing and job training and has argued that the project would create jobs for the neighborhood, but opponents say it will still lead to displacement. A spokesperson for the developers did not respond to requests for comment.
According to a CNN analysis of data from the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser’s office, nearly one in four residential properties in the relatively high-ground zip codes that include Little Haiti are owned by companies — a little less than double the rate of the county as a whole. Property owners in the area include companies with names such as “Highland Properties,” “Premium Elevation LLC,” and “Sky High LLC.” Attempts to obtain comment from those companies were not successful.
High rates of ownership by firms are “one very clear way to see that there’s an investor class coming in” and buying out families, Keenan said.
Nadege Green, the director of community research for the activist group Community Justice Project, who’s previously reported on development in Little Haiti as a journalist for local radio station WLRN, said that the gentrification has frayed tight-knit social bonds in the community, where locals who only speak Creole rely on neighbors to help them navigate government bureaucracies.
People who are priced out of the neighborhood “lose a lot more than their home,” said Green, who grew up in and around Little Haiti. “What was disrupted was this system of community help and mutual aid that’s built into the neighborhood.”
In a report released last week outlining a strategy to deal with sea level rise, Miami-Dade County said it would encourage more development in higher-ground areas near transit — but also acknowledged that approach could lead to higher housing costs in those neighborhoods. “It is critical to ensure that sufficient affordable housing options are available in low risk areas to serve existing residents and accommodate those who may be displaced from high risk areas,” the report says.
Of course, developers are still building in low-lying areas like Miami Beach — and some real estate and political leaders in the coastal cities are skeptical that sea level rise will seriously dampen the area’s housing market anytime soon.
Jay Phillip Parker, the CEO of real estate firm Douglas Elliman’s Florida brokerage, said “the most coveted” property in the Miami market is still a waterfront home, and noted that Southern Florida communities are already embracing investments like street elevations and new water pumps.
Still, experts say that the impact of climate change on the real estate market is only likely to become more pronounced. And while New Orleans and Miami are on the front lines of climate gentrification, the trend could repeat itself around the country as the impacts of our warming world grow more obvious.
Keenan argued that it makes sense for developers to build in higher-ground areas that will be safer from rising sea levels. Cities should require mandatory affordable housing and space for small businesses to be built as part of it, in order to ensure the people who’ve lived in those areas for decades don’t get pushed out, he said.
Some activists on the ground see the issue in starker terms. Bastien, of Family Action Network Movement, has a message for other high ground communities in coastal cities facing encroaching seas: get ready.
“They should start organizing right now to claim the right to stay,” she said. “Because one day, the developers will come knocking.”
How we reported this story
To analyze the racial change and elevation of New Orleans neighborhoods, CNN used data on racial makeup from the 2000 Census and the 2014-2019 American Community Survey, as well as elevation data from the US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (with assistance from USGS researcher Dean Gesch). We computed median elevations for each census tract using the area of the tract that covered land and excluded the area that covered water. We standardized data for census tracts that changed boundaries between 2000 and 2019 using a relationship file published by the National Historical Geographic Information System at the University of Minnesota.
For the analysis of properties owned by companies in Little Haiti and Miami-Dade County, CNN obtained data on 918,000 properties from the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser’s office and defined a property as owned by a company if the owner’s name included the phrases “LLC” or “INC.”