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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

Sea level rise may gentrify Florida's inland regions, according to a recent study

A map of Pinellas County, with redish shades indicating a high risk for displacement, orange as medium risk and yellow as low. Bold borders mean opportunity zones, and striped sections mean they are community redevelopment areas.
The Leroy Collins Institute/Florida State University
In Pinellas, four areas have been identified as high risk for displacement: Clearwater, Largo, Lealman and South St. Pete.

Lower-income households or renters living inland would be the most impacted by sea level rise displacement, and they tend to be those with the least capacity to move and adapt, a FSU researcher said.

A recent report on climate change examines how sea level rise could cause gentrification, as wealthy residents along Florida's coast move inland. Researchers have highlighted the need for clear policies to address the looming issue.

The LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University funded the study that looked specifically at Pinellas, Miami-Dade and Duval counties.

“We were really looking for relatively high population, relatively high-density, variation in terms of coastlines, and also variation in terms of demographic and population,” said William Butler, a professor within the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at FSU, who was part of a team working on the study titled Addressing Climate Driven Displacement: Planning for Sea Level Rise in Florida’s Coastal Communities and Affordable Housing in Inland Communities in the face of Climate Gentrification.

His team identified areas of risk through mapping; analyzed policies to determine how effectively coastal municipalities are planning for sea level rise and how effectively inland municipalities are planning to protect affordable housing; and interviewed policymakers, planners, housing officials, and community advocates.

It's expected that over the next 50 to 100 years, depending on the pace of sea level rise, many residents will not be able to stay along some of Florida's highly populated coasts, Butler said.

"They might move inland to higher ground. When they do so people are already likely living there,” he said. “That could lead to a process of gentrification, which is essentially pricing out the people who are there, as land values increase, as densification occurs in development.”

Lower-income households or renters would be the most impacted, he said, and they tend to be those with the least capacity to move and adapt.

Four areas in Pinellas were identified as being at high risk of displacement. The coastal areas include Clearwater and Largo. Lealman and South St. Pete are further inland, which the study notes are primarily comprised of an African American population.

The report also published these findings about Pinellas County:

  • Pinellas is predominantly White.
  • White residents will be most impacted by displacement across the board – high, medium and low risk.
  • However, areas that are deemed high-risk for displacement have a large percentage of Hispanics and African Americans living in them while whites make up a larger percentage of those living in areas with medium or low risks of displacement.
  • Thus, while many White residents face high displacement risks, race continues to play a role in increasing displacement risk for populations of color.

The report also revealed that policymakers across Florida who are tasked with addressing sea level rise are playing catchup. There's a disconnect between policy that's on the books and what's actually happening on the ground, according to Butler.

"We've really started taking it seriously within the last decade and having state guidance on what to do about sea level rise,” he said.

“But our policies are not particularly robust and concrete. We have very few municipalities that are saying, 'We're going to require new developments to have a protection structure in place that will make sure that they can withstand one foot of sea level rise or more.'"

Butler and his colleagues would like to explore what is stopping some sea level rise policies from being implemented.

On the housing side, however, Butler said there's a lot of “really great policies in place,” which he attributes to the Growth Management Act of 1985.

“So, for nearly 40 years, we've been really thinking about how to do affordable housing, planning and policy,” he said.

Butler points to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council as a successful case in addressing the gap in resilient housing through its REACH Initiative, which stands for Resilience and Energy Assessment of Communities and Housing.

“If the analysis that they're doing in Pinellas County and in the broader Tampa Bay region actually guides policies going forward, then it really could be an extraordinary laboratory for how to get ahead of climate change application,” he said. “That would be a model for places all over the Gulf Coast as well as the Atlantic Coast.”

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.