Making the “Miami Forever Bond” a Model for Equitable Climate Adaptation
By Zelalem Adefris, Resilience Director at Catalyst Miami
You could say that Miami, Florida, is ground zero for climate change. As the American city most vulnerable to sea-level rise, Miami faces existential threats from flooding, storm surge and saltwater intrusion in the city’s drinking water. And growing inequity places Miami’s low-income and marginalized communities at extraordinary risk from climate impacts.
But—thanks to the Miami Climate Alliance, a coalition of citizens’ groups–this coastal city could also be at the forefront of equitable climate adaptation.
Last year, under the leadership of its outgoing Republican Mayor, Tomás Regalado, Miami’s voters passed a $400 million “Miami Forever Bond.” The measure authorized the city government to borrow money on the municipal bond market to address sea-level rise and the city’s affordable housing crisis, levying a new property tax to repay the debt. The Miami Climate Alliance is working to ensure that the bond benefits those who need it most.
How did a famously tax-averse city with a conservative Republican mayor find itself in the vanguard of climate adaptation? The answer lies, in part, with Regalado’s conversion from climate skepticism. When he was elected in 2009, Regalado thought that sea level rise was “a very distant future possibility,” he later told The New York Times. But, during a series of 4:30 am chats over Cuban coffee, Regalado’s son, Jose, convinced him of the urgency of the problem.
That urgency has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Over the last 10 years, the Miami region has seen floods increase in frequency by 400 percent; fish now swim the flooded streets even on rainless, sunny days. The ocean that laps at the region’s famed beaches has risen nearly a foot since preindustrial times, and could swell by six feet or more by the end of this century. Rising seas will combine with supercharged storms to inundate the Miami region, which is home to nearly three million people.
Of course, not all people are affected equally by climate threats. That was evident when Hurricane Andrew tore through Miami in 1992; the hardest-hit areas included the impoverished municipality of Florida City, south of downtown Miami. While neighboring areas quickly bounced back after the storm, Florida City suffered from plummeting property values and rising poverty.
And, despite the city’s booming tourist trade and glittering seaside real estate, many City of Miami residents are struggling to get by. Nearly 60 percent of Miami-Dade County households are considered financially unstable; one in five live in poverty. Poverty is most prevalent among African-American and Hispanic communities, which together make up 85 percent of Miami-Dade’s population.
As climate impacts became a daily reality for the people of the City of Miami, Mayor Regalado gathered support for the bond initiative. He got an assist from the First Street Foundation, whose Seawall Coalition (a 501 (c) (4) organization) spent $350,000 to educate the city’s voters about sea-level rise. Ultimately, about 55 percent of Miami’s electorate voted in favor of the Miami Forever Bond.
Miami is not the first U.S. city to raise money to gird against climate change. In 2012, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a $290 million debt measure to rebuild a seawall that protects the downtown waterfront. And in 2016, San Francisco Bay area residents approved a tax to fund a $500 million restoration of tidal marshes, which act as a buffer against storm surges.
In Miami, city officials have set broad outlines for how the bond funds will be spent: they have earmarked $192 million for storm drain upgrades, flood pumps and seawalls to curb flooding; $100 million for affordable housing and economic development; $78 million for parks and cultural facilities; $23 million for road improvements; and $7 million for public safety.
But the devil, as always, is in the details. Which neighborhoods will see the greatest benefit from bond funding? And who decides how the money will be spent? The stakes are high: if spending bypasses Miami’s most vulnerable communities, current inequities will only deepen in the decades to come.
That’s why the Miami Climate Alliance is working to make sure the Miami Forever Bond benefits all the city’s people—especially those in underserved communities.
The Alliance was convened in 2015 by a diverse group of some 100 Miami-area residents (including community leaders, students, over 80 community organizations, social justice advocates, environmentalists, scientists, teachers, and climate activists) to organize the Miami People’s Climate March. While organizing the March, Alliance members were surprised to learn that there was no mention of climate change—or funding for climate action—in Miami-Dade County’s $6.8 million FY 2015-16 budget. So the Alliance mobilized residents to speak up during the budget hearings, which led to the creation of the County’s Office of Resilience and its first-ever Chief Resilience Officer.
Since then, the Alliance and its member organizations have pushed Miami to take the lead on equitable climate action. For example, after the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the Alliance won commitments from several local municipalities to support the Accord targets on renewable energy. And, when the City appointed a new Sea Level Rise Committee, the Alliance fought hard to make sure that Committee reflects the city’s diversity.
“If you include black and brown people, people from the community, you’ll change the dynamic,” Trenise Bryant, an Alliance activist, told the Miami Herald earlier this year.
Now the Alliance is working to make sure that communities have a real say in how the Miami Forever Bond funds are spent. To that end, the Miami Climate Alliance and Catalyst Miami organized a series of town halls, which drew dozens of community members. There, residents agreed on a set of criteria to apply to Bond-funded projects. The Alliance will work to make sure those criteria are used by a citizen oversight board that makes recommendations on Bond spending to the City Commission.
The Alliance also helped shape the citizen oversight board, making sure it reflects the City’s racial, gender and age diversity—while excluding those with overt conflicts of interest. And the Alliance helped ensure that the board includes not only those with expertise in hydrology, architecture, and engineering, but also those with knowledge of community leadership and an equity perspective. All of these asks were incorporated into the oversight board ordinance by the City Commission and Mayor Francis Suarez.
It’s a slow-moving process: nearly a year after the bond’s approval, the city’s oversight board has still not met. However, the Miami Climate Alliance will be there every step of the way, amplifying the voices of those at greatest risk from climate impacts. If this effort succeeds, Miami could be a model of climate adaptation that is both farsighted and just.
The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit will take place next week on October 24-25 in Miami Beach. Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami Beach are hosting the 10th Annual Climate Leadership Summit on behalf of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. Registration closes on October 19th. A waitlist is available for the first 50 people who are interested in attending.