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Climate Conversations: A Reflection on Climate Action in the Community Development Field

May 17th, 2022 by Neha Chinwalla

Growing up, I thought climate change was only about protecting the natural world – saving polar bears, hugging trees, and recycling instead of throwing it in the trash. Now, as I wrap up my bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Boston University and my year-long climate policy internship with MACDC, I have a very different perspective.    

The climate crisis is not an isolated issue. Our world does not operate in silos, and the greatest problems we are facing are no different. Housing justice, racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice are all connected. My time at MACDC has revealed this to me even more. 

From speaking with our members, to collaborating with LISC Boston and New Ecology, to having the opportunity to join policy coalitions, I have learned about the community development field and the important role it plays in making a better future. In particular, I have gained a deeper understanding of green buildings as a way of simultaneously remedying the housing crisis and the climate crisis. As we noted in our testimony in favor of the HERO bill, which would double the deeds excise tax to raise money to address both the climate and housing crises in MA, “Climate and housing are pressing, interrelated issues our Commonwealth is facing today. We have the technical solutions to build more resilient, affordable, and healthy housing; we just need the resources to scale up these efforts. CDCs and other affordable housing providers are leading the way.” 

Similarly, our coalition’s letter to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, requesting $250 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to create the Zero Carbon Renovation Fund, now has 104 organizational signatories, representing over 43,000 units of affordable housing. The two million existing buildings across the Commonwealth contribute almost one third of Massachusetts’ emissions. With this in mind, the Coalition is proposing an allocation of funds to support retrofits of existing buildings to reduce emissions, improve public health, and provide climate resilience.  

Through these coalitions and advocacy opportunities, I have been inspired, working with and learning from passionate experts like Emily Jones, the Senior Program Officer for LISC Boston's Green Homes and Green Jobs Initiative. “For me, climate action means advocating for all people to enjoy a safe, healthy, and beautiful environment where they can meaningfully contribute to a just society and regenerative economy. I advocate because I want everyone to be able to live in a healthy, green home they can afford, and work and play in ways that are healing to the earth,” Emily said. “At its core, I see climate action as a way of furthering racial justice and economic justice.” 

Knowing we have the solutions to decarbonize our building sector and provide healthier homes for more people gives me hope for the future, especially after having the opportunity to work with people across the Commonwealth who are dedicating their careers to this fight. As I go forward with my next steps, moving across the country to pursue my Master of Urban Planning at the University of Washington, I will forever be thankful to MACDC, our members and partners, and all I have learned from living and working in Massachusetts these past few years, for providing me a foundation to join them in creating a more equitable, sustainable tomorrow.  

 

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Climate Conversations: Homeowners Rehab’s Sustainable Affordable Housing

March 28th, 2022 by Neha Chinwalla

Finch Cambridge (New Ecology Photo)

 

Boasting spacious open floor plans, large (and triple-glazed) windows and closets, community rooms, and a rooftop terrace, Homeowners Rehab’s Finch Cambridge is a beautiful, and affordable, place to live. Beyond the physical features of the 98-unit apartment building at Fresh Pond, Finch is the first Passive House certified affordable, multifamily housing development in Massachusetts, equipped with high-efficiency heating and cooling, sustainable finishes, a 105kW Solar PV system, and Energy Star appliances in every unit.  

Finch Cambridge, located between the Alewife and Cambridge Highlands neighborhoods, is a model project for sustainable design, community-building, and high-quality affordable housing. HRI is committed to the development of more sustainable, affordable housing. “HRI, for over 25 years, has been trying to incorporate sustainability and energy conservation efforts into our development any time we can, in terms of new construction and occupied or major rehab,” said Director of Development Jane Carbone.  

Many of HRI’s projects are LEED Platinum certified and all are Enterprise Green Communities certified, two commonly used standards for energy-efficient, healthy design. In doing so, HRI is aligned with the City of Cambridge’s efforts to decarbonize. They work closely with the City throughout their development process. “We’re pretty mindful of what the City of Cambridge’s goals are for the reduction of carbon emissions,” Carbone said.  

Cambridge’s efforts are part of a broader movement to electrify buildings and improve energy efficiency. HRI has recently signed on to the U.S Department of Energy’s Better Climate Challenge, pledging to reduce their portfolio-wide scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% within 10 years. Part of the emissions reductions are incorporating renewable energy in their buildings and assessing where solar PV placement is optimal.   

One of HRI’s other projects is a damaged three-story apartment building. “The triple-decker that we are working on had a fire in November 2020,” Project Manager Eleni Macrakis said. “We are looking to do a gut renovation. The fire damage wasn’t too much, but the water damage from the fire department was expensive [to address].”   

To renovate the triple-decker, HRI stripped it down to the studs and is rebuilding it even better with all-electric systems, upgraded kitchens and baths, sustainable finishes, and solar. “The outside cladding was intact, so we are creating a thicker envelope on the inside so that we’re building out a stud wall and insulating the wall. The goal is to get to as close to net-zero [as possible],” Carbone said.  

To those that are hesitant to support new developments, HRI points to their successful track record to earn the community’s trust. While development of affordable housing often faces opposition as a result of NIMBYism, residents in Cambridge have been more supportive of HRI’s developments because of the sustainability aspects. “People who don’t like development generally were supportive of Finch,” said Will Monson, Senior Project Manager. “They knew it was Passive House and knew what we were trying to do.”  

“People have seen the impact in their own community of flooding and heat events. Those events are so close to home that people not only support but require us to achieve those levels [in response]. I think it helps our projects if we’re doing all of the climate measures,” Carbone said. Beyond assessing the buildings’ energy use and sustainable features, HRI also develops resident programs that promote healthy living for the community.  

With the measures they are taking to design climate-resilient, energy-efficient buildings, HRI is paving the way for the future of affordable housing. “With climate change and these measures, a lot of it is data collection,” Carbone said. “It’s important that we show folks that this can be done and there’s a way to collect the data to show it can be done. Then we share that knowledge so other people can learn from our experiences. That’s very important to move this agenda along.”   

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Climate Conversations: NOAH & Climate Resiliency ~ An Opportunity to Revamp for the Future

March 7th, 2022 by Neha Chinwalla

Photo from NOAH

 

Environmental justice and resiliency are hot topics today in the climate action conversation, but they haven’t always been. Around 25 years ago in East Boston, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc. (NOAH) planted the seeds for integrating the values of environmental justice into the urban environmental issues they were fighting for.  

“The term of environmental justice began to be a term of substance that was applied to urban areas, as opposed to just ‘save the polar bears.’ When that began to catch on in the bureaucracies, federal and then the state, we were quick to embrace it,” Philip Giffee, Executive Director of NOAH, said. “East Boston is a neighborhood that is a peninsula and cheek by jowl with Logan International Airport. That has been a challenging relationship.” 

East Boston’s residents’ battle with Logan International Airport has been longstanding. The development of the airport took parks and housing away from East Boston. Asthma rates also skyrocketed, as combustion has an especially negative impact on air quality during the take-off and landing of aircraft. A grant from the City of Boston is supporting NOAH’s efforts to assess the impact of the airport on the environmental health of the neighborhood. Through the grant, NOAH is using sensors to identify the air quality of 40 businesses, schools, residential homes, and nonprofits are affected by the airport. The work is done hand-in-hand with East Boston residents. 

“We never do anything on our own. We work with the people who work here,” Latifa Ziyad, East Boston Resiliency Planning Coordinator for NOAH, said. With the community’s needs always at the forefront, NOAH has become more involved in climate resiliency work. 

“The environmental justice piece began to motivate a lot of people in the neighborhood,” Giffee said. “We began to move into climate work when superstorm sandy hit New York. Sandy could have hit Boston. We saw the damage it could have caused.”  

As part of its resiliency work, NOAH hosted summits to create a larger platform to talk about solutions to the pressing issues in East Boston: the airport, storm surge, and sea level rise. Ziyad also sits on an advisory committee on heat. She emphasized that heat kills, especially vulnerable populations such as children, older people, and more often than not, people of color.  

What centers NOAH’s resiliency work is building a stronger community, one that will provide residents the services to bounce back better from disturbances. “We know climate work dovetails poverty. It wouldn’t be as much a threat if people had the mechanisms to cope with it. We focus on building social cohesion, and climate is an aspect of it but it’s not an exclusive focus,” Ziyad said.  

“We look at what preventions we can put in place, and then how we react in the midst of the event, and after the event, how do we recover, not to the point of where we were before the storm or stressor hit, but actually use it as a chaotic moment to launch ahead,” Ziyad said. "We know a lot of the systems we were involved in before were already broken anyway. It becomes an opportunity to not only heal, but revamp for the future.”  

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Climate Conversations: Urban Tree Plantings & Youth Empowerment at Groundwork Lawrence

February 7th, 2022 by Neha Chinwalla

Photo from Groundwork Lawrence. 

 

For almost 22 years, Groundwork Lawrence (GWL) has focused on brownfields and park redevelopment, tree canopy coverage, and youth empowerment.  

“We center everything around the community so that the community is really telling us, not us telling the community, where their concerns are,” Deputy Director Lesly Melendez said. One of the community’s greatest concerns is high utility costs.  

Increased tree canopy coverage offers a solution to this concern. Areas with fewer trees have higher utility costs, while more trees lead to lower heating and cooling costs with more natural climate control. Trees also help combat Urban Heat Island Effect, which occurs when land cover is dominated by surfaces like asphalt that absorb heat 

One of the programs GWL leads is the Green Streets program. Launched in 2004, the initiative aims to increase the urban tree canopy across Lawrence by providing free trees to residents and businesses. The GWL team ensures trees are planted in appropriate areas across three Lawrence neighborhoods: the Arlington/Campagnone North Common, the O’Connell South Common, and Colonial Heights. With funding from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental AffairsGreening the Gateway Cities program, GWL planted almost 800 trees in the densest areas of Lawrence in 2021. 

GWL focuses on educating the community on the benefits and services provided by trees and greenspaces, while also offering paid opportunities for youth to engage around climate action. They have four youth program crews under their Green Team: So Fresh (urban agriculture and food), So Green (trails, parks, trees), So Community (community engagement and outreach), and the newest, So Reduce (recycling, upcycling, composting). During the summer of 2021, GWL expanded its program to 40 youth team members and 8 youth leaders.  

GWL is continuing to adapt and respond to the needs of the community during the pandemic. GWL has returned to offering nutrition programs in Lawrence public schools. Looking ahead to this year, GWL is aiming to match the programming additions they made in 2021 and continue to grow their efforts.  

We’ve grown as an organization in terms of staffing and programming. Now, it’s about really digging deep and putting those roots in the ground,” Lesly said, “and making sure we’re doing what the community really wants us to be doing.” 

For Lesly, the work is about much more than planting trees. Born and raised in Lawrence, Lesly’s favorite part about her job is having the opportunity to give back to a community that has given her so much. 

“As a kid, I saw some of these parks in such horrible conditions,” Lesly said. “Now, being able to be a part of a redevelopment of a park or creating a new park space, for not just this generation but generations moving forward, is probably the thing that excites me the most.” 

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