Besides reducing our carbon footprint and limiting U.S. dependence on foreign oil, sustainability initiatives are valuable tools in reducing poverty in low-income neighborhoods.
These neighborhoods have largely been excluded by traditional environmentalism. For years, environmental justice activists have rightly refocused the environmental movement on those communities that historically have been most heavily impacted by environmental hazards.
Even in those poor neighborhoods not home to power plants, waste transfer stations or the other most egregious environmental offenders, existing physical conditions serve to sustain not just ill health, but poverty as well. “Green” interventions in the built environment can address inequity by reducing costs, increasing opportunities and stabilizing communities.
Here are two examples of projects we are implementing in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, where I work:
The foreclosure crisis has hit East New York particularly hard – it continues to have one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the city. Low-income households spend, on average, 20 percent of their income on energy. For the large majority of low-income households already spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the additional 20 percent for heat, hot water and lights can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
By retrofitting small homes of low-income homeowners – insulating, upgrading heating and cooling systems, swapping out inefficient appliances – energy bills can be reduced anywhere from 15 percent to over 40 percent. This enables families with already tight budgets to re-allocate those limited resources to any number of crucial expenses, including mortgage payments. In this way, retrofits are an important foreclosure prevention tool. Keeping people in their homes has the added community benefit of stabilizing neighborhoods.
And if those retrofits are whole house retrofits – if they include roof repairs (by far the most common and most pressing capital repair need in East New York and, I would assume, in most low-income neighborhoods), and mold and mildew remediation – indoor air quality is improved. Whether because of deferred maintenance or just general shoddy construction, oftentimes indoor air quality in low-income homes is worse, and sometimes significantly worse, than outdoor air quality. Poor indoor air quality is a direct cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Eliminating the causes of these kinds of illnesses reduces trips to the emergency room and the pharmacy, lowering both medical bills and missed days of work.
Similarly, community-based, urban agriculture projects – from community gardens to hydroponic greenhouses to, in our neighborhood, a community-run chicken coop – have multi-layered benefits for low-income communities. By increasing access to fresh, healthy food in neighborhoods where existing food choices range from White Castle to Wendy’s, we have a shot at lowering rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease– the rates of which are currently through the roof. Again, medical bills and sick days are reduced for parents. Additionally, kids with healthy diets are absent less and perform better at school. This has long-term and lasting impacts on young people’s lives. Higher grades and better school performance lead to expanded economic opportunities in the future.
New York, of course, is not Detroit. There aren’t acres and acres of vacant land available for urban farms. But even in those urban agriculture projects where total food production is relatively modest, there is much to be said for the social capital that is accumulated. When neighbors work side by side to weed a raised planting bed or clean out a chicken coop, those neighbors are much more likely to look out for each other and their spaces. This kind of investment – social connections, “eyes on the street” – results in less crime and greater neighborhood investment, both from inside and outside the community.
These kinds of “green” projects have transformative power in low-income communities and communities of color. They can make housing more affordable, residents more healthy, students more successful, neighbors more deeply connected, and communities safer. Sustainability initiatives are powerful community development tools that can change the physical conditions that create and sustain poverty.