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Climate gentrification and Trump’s immigration crackdown is hitting this Miami neighborhood hard

"If they allow the developers to build this as-is, Little Haiti as we know it will no longer exist."

Little Haiti in Miami, Florida. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Little Haiti in Miami, Florida. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

MIAMI, FLORIDA — On the streets of Little Haiti, resentment is brewing in the air. The bright, cheerful neighborhood booms with friendly banter and greetings between neighbors, even early in the morning on a Monday. But the lightest of conversations turns sour when the discussion shifts to the neighborhood’s booming development.

“The developers come and make it almost impossible for a guy that makes under $25,000 a year to make it,” grumbles TiGeorges Laguerre, who runs Kafé Péyi. Laguerre’s Haitian cuisine made him famous in Los Angeles, but he came to Miami seeking Creole and a Haitian community. Now, he feels that familial atmosphere is about to disappear, a trend locals say is thanks to mass-development — as well as climate change.

In the midst of murals adorned with the Haitian flag and iconic Haitian figures, a number of small businesses have shuttered. To the side of a main road cutting through Little Haiti, a large-scale mural oversees one grassy vacant lot, partitioned by a fence strewn with campaign signs in advance of Tuesday’s primary elections. Bordering the area is another, larger lot, where a prominent billboard foreshadows Little Haiti’s imminent future: a wide-scale development project bringing 2,500 apartments and 27-story buildings to the neighborhood.

A sign advertises development plans in Little Haiti. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
A sign advertises development plans in Little Haiti. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

“We are in the final phase, the last leg of gentrification,” Marleine Bastien tells ThinkProgress unhappily, as she gestures around her. “If they allow the developers to build this as-is, Little Haiti as we know it will no longer exist. Because there is no way that the area can survive such high-scale [projects], such density.”

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Bastien is the executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), which traditionally works to empower low and moderate income families in the area. These days, her efforts are focused more and more on addressing what she calls “climate gentrification” — the process through which low-income communities of color are being displaced and replaced by wealthy white homeowners eyeing property away from the beach.

“For the longest time, we used to think that Little Haiti is being [taken over] because of the airports, proximity to the beach,” says Bastien. “We used to think that it was because of the proximity to so many important outlets. But we found out, over three years ago, that [Little Haiti] is situated at a much higher altitude.”

That prized attribute is spelling trouble for the neighborhood. Little Haiti serves as one of Miami’s proud art communities, a bustling area shaped by the French-Creole influences of its residents. Haitian immigrants have sought refuge in South Florida over the years, fleeing persecution and poverty at home. In Miami, they have painstakingly carved out a space, slowly turning one of the city’s least desirable neighborhoods into a welcoming hub for artists and musicians.

Some migration to the area, however, has been shaped by natural disasters. The 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti led the Obama administration to grant undocumented Haitians in the country Temporary Protected Status (TPS), allowing them to remain in the United States. But that reprieve is coming to an end; last year, the Trump administration ended TPS for 50,000 Haitians, giving them until July 22, 2019 to return to the island or make alternate arrangements.

For Little Haiti, that brutal blow is only one of many.

Florida is among the states most vulnerable to climate change. Hurricanes worsened by warming temperatures, deadly heat hurting farmworkers, and a toxic algae bloom crisis have all hit the state hard. Sea level rise is also encroaching on populated beaches, devaluing homes, and encouraging developers to look further inland. And their eyes are set on Little Haiti.

Miami is a flat, low-lying city — most of it sits barely five feet above sea level. Meanwhile, Little Haiti is one of the few areas offering some elevation, making the neighborhood prime real estate away from accelerating sea level rise.

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Developers have pounced on Little Haiti, eager to purchase homes and attract wealthier residents. In the process, the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly Black and Latinx residents are being forced out of an area they largely built themselves.

“When the Haitians settled here in the mid-70s, they were left to fend for themselves, it was a very depressed area, drug-infested area,” says Bastien. “The Haitian immigrants really organized and worked. Suddenly, Little Haiti is a prized area.”

Louis Rosemond stands on a street in Little Haiti. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Louis Rosemond stands on a street in Little Haiti. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

Louis Rosemond, one of the area’s most popular artists, is among those most impacted by the neighborhood’s climate gentrification crisis. Rosemond, 61, immigrated from Haiti decades ago, and his art recalls the island’s Caribbean culture and vibrant personality. In Little Haiti, he has established himself as a deeply-respected artist and community stalwart. But come September 1, Rosemond tells ThinkProgress he will have to relocate to North Miami, bowing to pressure from building owners.

“The building where I will have to leave soon, [it’s mostly] old people, with disabilities,” he says in Creole. “These are the people who are facing displacement. And I must add, that the sad thing about it, is that the city of Miami is not doing anything to support these people.”

Residents are effectively squeezed from both ends. The end of TPS means many living in Little Haiti may have to return to an island where climate change is making natural disasters more common and more deadly. But climate gentrification means they may lose their homes much sooner, plagued by soaring rents and relentless harassment by developers.

That crisis isn’t drawing much sympathy from officials. Despite the number of campaign signs dotting the neighborhood, few candidates seem to have taken an interest in Little Haiti’s plight.

One notable exception is Andrew Gillum, a gubernatorial candidate fighting an uphill battle for the Democratic nomination. Gillum, the only non-millionaire in that race, would be Florida’s first Black governor if elected, and there are far more signs supporting him than any other gubernatorial candidate on Little Haiti’s main streets.

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Candidates and lawmakers who care are the exception, not the rule. But when asked on the street, Little Haiti’s residents say they are planning to vote on Tuesday, part of a last-ditch effort to have their voices heard.

Organizations like FANM, meanwhile are working hard to protect the community, demanding meetings with officials and requesting that Little Haiti’s residents be included in development plans. So far, success has been limited, Bastien says, although she is optimistic about some meetings planned for this week.

“Development that is being done without you is development that is being done against you,” says Bastien. “So, we are fighting for our lives, we are fighting to survive, we are fighting to exist, in a neighborhood we built.”