Related Group’s Jorge Pérez: ‘Sea level rise is something that is going to hit us all’

What do a billionaire real estate mogul, a wealth management executive and a Republican congresswoman have in common?

Living and working in South Florida, they share concerns about the impacts that a changing climate — and rising seas — may pose to the area and its economy.

During an in-depth panel discussion hosted as part of the Florida Priorities Summit 2018 at the University of Miami, Related Group Chairman and CEO Jorge Pérez said real estate developers and lawmakers need to work together to ensure the low-lying areas of South Florida remain sustainable and that plans for Everglades restoration move forward quickly.

“Sea level rise is something that is going to hit us all,” Pérez said. “I think that it requires a huge political will and a huge private [sector] will.”

Pérez was joined by fellow real estate developer David Martin, president and co-founder of Terra, Republican state Rep. Holly Raschein, representing the Keys and South Miami-Dade, and Marc Singer, founding partner of Singer Xenos Wealth Management.

Dr. Steve Davis, a senior ecologist at The Everglades Foundation, provided the audience with a crash course in Florida’s ongoing work to help restore the Everglades and reroute discharges from Lake Okeechobee south toward Florida Bay. Water from the nutrient-rich lake in central Florida, which fills up on water flowing south from Kissimmee, discharges east to the Caloosahatchee River and west to the St. Lucie River, Davis said.

Meanwhile, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay have seen a 50 percent drop-off in fresh water flowing south, leading to excess salinity and sea grass dying.

“We know that water needs to go south,” Davis said. “This infrastructure has left the southern end of this system … really vulnerable to drought and dependent upon rainfall each and every year to keep these habitats and resources protected.”

Projects are underway to help store massive amounts of water south of the lake and open up a lane for water to flow south, Davis said. He said the restoration plan would help reduce by 50 percent the harmful discharges from the lake that have spread algal blooms to Florida’s coasts.

“Every environmental disturbance creates an economic disruption,” said Martin, the real estate developer. He and the panelists spent much of their time speaking about keeping Florida’s tourism industries thriving, and the need to keep Florida’s coasts resilient in the face of sea level rise.

A few years ago, Martin and his contemporaries didn’t hear a whole lot about rising seas. Now, says wealth manager Singer, it’s a topic of conversation several times a week.

Singer, who runs a $1.5 billion firm based in Coral Gables, has been giving his clients rather contrarian advice as of late: Get out of South Florida real estate before values drop. Predictions show that South Florida may see 1 to 2 feet of sea level rise by 2060, and taxpayers may wind up fronting the load to keep their cities, and the county, resilient.

He now preaches a “50 percent rule” that warns against keeping more than half of your assets in vulnerable markets, like flood-prone areas of South Florida.

While property value changes are cyclical, he said, “if the sea level rises, it won’t be cycling back down again.”

Raschein said Wednesday’s discussion would likely be the first of several.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” Raschein said. “We’re going to be having this conversation while we’re sitting in our rocking chairs.”