How a Black Miami Neighborhood Became ‘Ground Zero for Climate Gentrification’

A documentary, 'Razing Liberty Square,' examines the plight of families in Liberty City as developers ‘revitalize’ community on desirable higher land.

Aaron McKinney had high hopes for Liberty City.

In 2015, Miami-Dade county officials announced a $74 million development project aimed at revitalizing the historically Black neighborhood in the northwest of the Miami. The plan was to raze Liberty Square, the dilapidated housing project in the heart of the neighborhood, and build 1,900 new apartments in its place.

A child sits on the back porch of his home in the Liberty Square housing project where he lives with his mother and six siblings.

Joshua Kenley sits on the back porch of his home in the Liberty Square housing project where he lives with his mother and six siblings. Photograph by Hector David Rosales.

None of the nearly 600 families living in the project would be displaced, officials said. McKinney, who grew up in Liberty City, worked for the Related Group, the developers overseeing the project. It was his job to liaise between his community and the company and allay any residents’ concerns about the project.

But by 2021, only about 200 families from the projects had been relocated to new units; most of the completed units were leased to newcomers who could pay market-based rents, he said. Disillusioned, McKinney quit.

“So many folks had left the site, and the project wasn’t going to impact people the way I thought it would,” said McKinney, 37. “It’s a textbook example of areas that were once disregarded but become desirable all of a sudden.”

What made the land in the Liberty City neighborhood inexpensive when it was developed as a public works project in the 1930s is a big part of what is drawing developers today: the community is five miles inland and sits about 10 feet above sea level.

“Liberty City is ground zero for climate gentrification,” said Adrian Madriz, a housing advocate who lives in Overtown, another rapidly changing neighborhood in Miami. “Even if it rains, the neighborhood never floods.”

The relentless displacement of low-income communities of color is a familiar saga in cities across the United States. But the climate crisis has accelerated the process in pancake-flat Miami, where scientists estimate that by 2040, sea levels will rise by 10 to 17in above 2000 levels.

‘The neighborhood never floods

Property values in some seaside suburbs have indeed been stagnating of late. The online real estate platform Zillow estimated the average home value in Miami Beach at $527,807 as of December 2023, a 0.4 percent increase over the previous year. In Liberty City, where the average home is valued at $380,255, Zillow registered a 12.2 percent rise.

“We know rising sea levels are coming, and people want to move away,” said Marvin Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University who has authored four books about the history of African Americans in Florida. “With Miami, that means moving west and moving into Black communities.”

By the end of the century, sea-level rise could displace as many as 13 million people in the US, according to one 2023 study. That figure includes 1 million Miamians.

Liberty City and, more broadly, climate gentrification are the subjects of a new feature-length documentary, “Razing Liberty Square,” by the director Katja Esson, that airs on PBS on Monday. The film follows community members and housing advocates as they seek to avert mass displacement after developers set their sights on the neighborhood.

“Everybody was very hopeful this could be a different redevelopment project because the developer had promised the community that people could stay,” she said.

Esson sees Liberty City as a cautionary tale for other predominantly Black and Brown communities living on land that is now coveted by property developers.

“Climate gentrification is a disastrous process by which the impact of climate change contributes to the displacement of low-income people and the transformation of their neighborhoods,” she said. “People of the community should have a say in how their community should be revitalized. It cannot come from outside.”

The idea of making the documentary came to Esson after she saw the 2016 Oscar-winning movie Moonlight, which was set in Liberty City. She spoke with several low-income, Black families who left after receiving housing vouchers to look for apartments in the private market.

“That was the biggest turning point,” said Esson, who spent six years on the film. “Many people took the vouchers, and they offer less protection overall to residents” who are now subject to yearly rent increases by their new landlords, she said.

Some community activists said the vouchers eliminated any incentive to remain in Liberty City and await completion of the initial phases of construction. “That was a clear indication that our local government had lied to us,” said Valencia Gunder, a local climate and housing advocate. “[Officials] said nobody would be transferred out of the neighborhood, but the vouchers turned out to be a gateway to displacement.”

The director of Miami-Dade county’s public housing authority, Alex Ballina, defended his predecessor’s decision to offer vouchers, noting that a group of Liberty City residents requested them in writing. “There was pushback from some residents,” said Ballina. “They wanted to leave, and they moved out.”

County records indicate that 213 families accepted the vouchers. Another 116 households waived their rights to new housing and moved out on their own.

‘This was supposed to be something better

Some residents who did move to the new units accuse the Related Group of shoddy workmanship. “This was supposed to be something better, but I knew it was all going to fall apart from watching how they were building these units,” said Samantha Kenley, a mother of seven who lives in a subsidized four-bedroom apartment.

Kenley said the leaky ceilings in her ground-floor unit have been repaired three times, but water continues to seep from windows and room corners during thunderstorms, causing mold and rust. She knows of at least five other neighbors who have been plagued by mold, cracked walls and porous ceilings.

Ballina acknowledged the residents’ complaints. “[The Related Group] obviously wasn’t putting any focus on the day-to-day management and maintenance” of the new apartment units, he said. “The hallways were dirty, there were cracks in the exterior stucco, and some of the door hinges looked like crap.”

Ballina said those problems are now being addressed by the developer’s property management arm, and he credits Esson for spotlighting issues that had been neglected for too long.

“The documentary has underscored the importance of critically examining public housing redevelopment programs to ensure they meet their intended objectives,” he said. “Management and maintenance [of the housing] has to be more pro-active.”

The Related Group did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenley, 39, grew up in the old housing project, and said that despite its reputation as a high-crime area she felt a sense of solidarity with her neighbors. “Everybody knew each other, but you will not know your neighbors here unless you take the initiative,” she said. “I miss the sense of community.”

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