Miami Beach is exploring a way to help residents cover the cost of floodproofing their properties from heavy rains and high tides made even higher by sea level rise – at least a little.
The city is considering offering residents matching grants of up to $20,000 for projects like installing flood panels, swapping out a driveway for permeable pavement or planting absorbent landscaping – all simple ways to cut down on flooding.
Other cities and states offer help for residents trying to adapt to climate change in the form of loans or federal cash, but Miami Beach’s proposal would stand alone in offering city money to homeowners as a grant.
“I believe this is a major step forward for our overall resilience program,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who sponsored the resolution. “We want to see this happen in our community. It’s right for our residents and it’s also in the long-term interest of the city.”
The program won’t be up and running until late 2021 or early 2022, after the city sets up a dedicated funding source and a process for applying for and awarding the grants.
The initial funding, up to $666,666.66 a year, comes from an old agreement with Miami-Dade County to pool cash for sea level rise projects. The city renamed it the Miami Beach Resilience Fund at a November meeting. The final grant rules would still require city commission approval.
Long term, the city plans to explore using rent payments from the new Convention Center Hotel, once it’s in business. When Miami Beach voters approved the hotel in 2018, they also voted to set aside $2 million of the hotel’s annual rent payments for several issues, including stormwater projects like more flood pumps. It’s unclear when the hotel will open and begin making rent payments to the city, and voters would have to approve using those funds for private property adaptation grants.
The grants are meant to help pay to elevate air conditioning units or install landscaping, not large-scale projects like raising sea walls or elevating houses, which experts say coastal residents will need to start doing soon to meet the rising tides. South Florida is predicting more than two feet of sea level rise by 2060.
Adapting to those higher waters is going to cost Florida, the most vulnerable state in the nation, billions. And most estimates – like the one that suggests Florida will need to spend $75 billion on seawalls by 2040 – only address the government’s cut of the bill. There’s no good guess for how much of that adaptation will be borne by property owners.
Amy Knowles, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the commission that a small survey of about 400 residents found that half experienced lawn flooding, 27% experienced garage flooding and about 13% had their homes flood. The majority of respondents said they’d apply for matching grants if the city offered them.
Knowles said the program will be designed to “help those that need it most, including from a flood risk and income perspective.”
Another group that could potentially benefit from the grants is homeowners on newly raised roads. The city’s campaign to elevate low-lying streets has seen pushback from residents upset that floodwater from the previously low-lying roads is now shifted onto their front yards, including some complaints about the cost of matching the higher roads to their properties.
“I do think this is an element of what this is about,” Samuelian said. “As the city is rightfully trying to protect the city’s public right of way, we need to make sure that nothing we’re doing is adversely affecting property owners.”
Knowles, however, cautioned that this grant program is not meant to completely cover those costs, known as harmonization.
“The new program could complement harmonization for low lying properties that have specific flooding mitigation needs, but is not intended to pay for private property responsibilities associated with utility improvements,” she wrote in an email.
At the expected rate of $20,000 per home, the fund could help out a little more than 30 homes a year. That drew criticism from former Miami Beach Commissioner John Aleman, who pointed out that it would take 150 years to reach all 5,000 single-family homes in the city.
At the November meeting, Aleman said the proposal was “really not moving the needle on climate change.”
“If you really want to help residents, then instead of pilfering infrastructure capital funding and handing it out to residents in small chunks, keep that money and use it for our core capital infrastructure. Use it for bigger pipes, use it for pumps,” she said. “That is the best way you can help us residents.”
Miami Beach Breaks New Ground
Government programs to help homeowners adapt to climate change are relatively rare outside of federal funding after disasters. Few, if any, cities offer the kinds of grants Miami Beach is considering.
Connecticut’s ShoreUp CT program provides low-interest financing for property owners in flood zones to elevate their homes and retrofit for flood and wind protection.
The closest parallel in Florida is the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, where homeowners can get financing to install solar panels or impact windows, although the controversial program has a reputation for putting elderly and low-income customers in financial peril.
New Orleans may have the most similar program to Miami Beach in its Community Adaptation Program, which covers the costs of green infrastructure installations for low-to-moderate-income residents in one of the most flood-prone parts of the city. The city is using part of a $141 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development to offer grants to around 3,900 homeowners.
So far, the city has helped 82 residents, with another 100-plus projects in the pipeline. The average cost is around $25,000, said Seth Knudsen, director of real estate development and planning with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
“We’ve been very upfront with the homeowners that these improvements are not going to solve the flooding in the whole neighborhood, but it is going to lessen the damage and help the water soak up faster,” he said.
New Orleans Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Brenda Breaux said the difference before and after the improvements “is like daylight and dark” for residents.
“These homeowners that are doing the work now have been the ambassadors and the mouthpieces in the community talking about the impact from their individual properties,” she said.
Knudson said the improvements have made a measurable difference in how much flooding the city sees after a heavy rainstorm.
“There’s a strong case to be made that these private properties are the best opportunities we have as a city to expand our stormwater capacity,” he said. “It’s really the future for us as a city.”
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