By Matt Levin
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Low-income residents in South Florida who escaped the worst of Hurricane Irma still found themselves enduring catastrophe in the aftermath.

About This Story

This report is part of an FCIR series on climate change.

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More Than a Year After Hurricane Irma, Florida’s Most Vulnerable Residents Struggle to Recover

Alana Greer, co-director of the nonprofit, legal services organization Community Justice Project in Miami, outlined how landlords in Little Haiti evicted tenants while electricity still hadn’t returned to the area. The homes weren’t necessarily damaged by the hurricane and the evictions were not the result of past-due rent, she said. These tenants appear to be early victims of a phenomenon described as “climate gentrification.”

As climate change becomes an increasing concern in Florida, properties in elevated areas become more desirable for wealthier residents trying to avoid the effects of sea-level rise. Weak protections for tenants and the state’s straightforward no-cause eviction law make it difficult for residents with limited resources to fight back.

Jean-Luc Adrien, who specializes in disaster recovery legal services at the Community Justice Project, said it’s too soon to say with certainty whether tenants forced out of Little Haiti signify climate gentrification, but the evidence he sees suggests as much. “Anecdotally, that seems to be the case,” he said.

The poor are most likely to get mired in the effects of climate change. State leaders have done little to provide a support system for those most vulnerable to consequences such as longer, hotter summers and sea-level rise.

In Homestead, Irma wiped away agriculture jobs in an industry that hasn’t returned to full strength. Migrant farmworkers, who do the bulk of agriculture production in Florida, have lost housing as a result. Jonathan Fried, who leads the Homestead-based grassroots advocacy group WeCount, has noticed an increase families who can no longer afford rent and are now doubling up in apartments to pay for housing.

Other laborers live in rental properties still in need of repairs, and the shoddy nature of the homes can raise utility costs as housing becomes less-energy efficient. Immigration status can make fixing those problems a struggle. Migrant workers with Temporary Protected Status — which gives temporary sanctuary to migrants from countries experiencing an ongoing humanitarian disaster — are not eligible for food stamps and must rely on donations and communal solidarity to feed themselves when not earning an income. Undocumented immigrants have even fewer resources available to them, and they do not qualify for certain FEMA assistance programs.

“The whole bureaucracy around assistance and who’s eligible for what is a mess beyond what it should be,” Fried said.

Even the resources out there can end up underutilized by those in need.
Low-income Floridians might qualify for multiple disaster relief programs, but eligibility is only half the puzzle. Outreach becomes a greater challenge when trying to reach non-native English speakers in these disaster areas.

Greer said that in the midst of a recovery, residents don’t realize they have access to short-term assistance programs like the state-run Disaster SNAP, a program that assists families dealing with sudden food loss caused by a natural disaster; or FEMA’s Disaster Legal Services, free legal services provided for disaster survivors. The long-term recovery program Rebuild Florida — designed to assist with repairs to homes damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017 — is only available to homeowners or landlords that rent low-income housing.

Florida’s mobile home parks, poorer neighborhoods and derelict properties that aren’t gentrifying are sometimes simply ignored. Post-Irma volunteers helping with the recovery would be the first to arrive at homes where elderly residents had been living without air conditioning and sitting in extreme heat.

“That was really scary to see,” Greer said. “A kind of lack of safety net for some of our most vulnerable community residents.”

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