How Miami Fought Gentrification and Won (for Now)

Unlike other rapidly growing cities, Miami doesn’t regulate building heights.
by | July 2015
Brickell is one of Miami's fastest growing neighborhoods. (Shutterstock)

Scott Beyer

Scott Beyer is a Governing columnist who focuses on urban issues.

Can growing cities avoid gentrification simply by building skyscrapers? Harvard economist Edward Glaeser thinks so. In his 2012 book Triumph of the City, he famously argues that in order to address housing shortages, cities need to build up. If they don’t, he warns, wealthy people who would buy high-rise units will instead buy older housing and displace longtime residents and businesses.

Glaeser’s theory has mostly gone untested as the nation’s most gentrifying cities -- such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- still heavily control building heights.But an area around downtown Miami might finally offer some support to Glaeser’s premise.

Not far from working-class, ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Havana and Overtown, Brickell is home to Miami’s growing banking industry. Close to downtown, it is one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods. At its center, it is bustling with upscale restaurants, bars and boutique shops. In other cities, Brickell’s wealth might spur gentrification in these poorer adjacent areas. But Miami’s land-use policies aren’t like those elsewhere.

Instead of controlling density by regulating building heights, Miami has let developers build up: 53 of the city’s 64 buildings over 400 feet tall have been completed since 2000. Many of these skyscrapers are in Brickell, built to accommodate a well-heeled residential population that has doubled to 28,000 over the past 15 years.

Unlike in many other cities that have seen similar rapid growth -- where professional-class influxes have brought displacement to ethnic neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s Mission District or D.C.’s U Street Corridor -- Miami hasn’t witnessed a spillover of the banking class into either the Little Havana or Overtown neighborhoods. According to the real estate site Zillow, median home values in both neighborhoods are about half of what they are citywide and about one-third of Brickell’s. While both areas have some new condos, they are still predominately historic and low-slung. Most important, people there have stayed put. Both Little Havana and Overtown remain 95 percent non-Anglo, with median incomes below $24,000.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Overtown and Little Havana won’t eventually gentrify; there have already been calls to upzone the latter. If they do gentrify, some will argue that it resulted from allowing a skyscraper neighborhood to rise nearby. But Glaeser may be on to something too. By allowing vertical growth, Miami has contained the influx of the wealthy to certain areas and helped to preserve others -- at least for a while.

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