As Biden Pushes Clean Mobility, New Report Examines Long-Term Funding Issues

Urges Sustainable, Equitable Support for Pioneering Programs 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – California has an array of pioneering programs aimed at promoting clean mobility in a way that also enhances racial/economic equity – issues that have just been highlighted by President Biden’s infrastructure plan. But to truly make a difference, such programs need long-term, stable funding, a new report from The Greenlining Institute argues.

The new report, Sustaining Clean Mobility Equity Programs, seeks to answer a critical question: How do we take these small, pilot projects and reliably fund them and bring them to scale, even after any hoped-for federal help runs out? And how do we fund them equitably, without burdening the very communities they seek to help?

The report looks at specific funding strategies that can be used by any state or community, from congestion pricing and road charging to taxing ride-hailing companies, user fees, advertising and sponsorships, weighing their advantages and disadvantages. It also highlights how to deploy other strategies to strengthen and stabilize equitable clean mobility programs, including community partnerships and improvements to the way governments administer grants.

“Many of these California pilot programs have been exclusively funded through the state’s cap-and-trade system, but that mechanism has significant drawbacks,” said report author Hana Creger, Greenlining’s Climate Equity Senior Program Manager. “Low-income, disadvantaged communities and communities of color need clean mobility, and that means identifying stable, equitable funding that allows these programs to grow. And we first need to prioritize the development of community vision, priorities and partnerships so that we can sustain these programs over the long haul.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Gas heat and stoves are warming the climate. Should cities start banning them?

By Alejandro Borunda
National Geographic

In the summer of 2019, the city council in Berkeley, California, made a bold and unprecedented move: They banned natural gas hookups in most new building construction.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who sponsored the new ordinance, had been on a hunt for ways to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. “We looked at where our emissions were coming from and found that natural gas in buildings played a significant role,” she says—they accounted for a whopping 37 percent of the city’s total. Cars are another big source, but the city has no authority to regulate tailpipe emissions. But buildings? “This is an area we can tackle,” Harrison says.

Berkeley’s pioneering ordinance spurred a wave of similar efforts. Since 2019, more than 40 cities in California have passed similar measures. Proposals to ban gas hookups are now under consideration in Colorado, Washington State, and Massachusetts.

Climate experts have long said that buildings old and new will need to wean themselves off fossil fuels. Today, buildings account for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—a number that will have to drop rapidly if the country hopes to hit the emissions reductions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

But the growing movement to restrict natural gas hookups has also unleashed an aggressive campaign by the natural gas industry to preemptively ban the bans.

The American Gas Association, an industry trade group, vowed in an email statement to “absolutely oppose any effort to ban natural gas or sideline our infrastructure anywhere the effort materializes, state house or city [hall] steps.” So far, six states, including Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah, have passed legislation forbidding such bans. Similar legislation is being considered in 14 other states.

Buildings are carbon hogs

Because buildings use so much energy, they have the potential to be a big part of any solution to the climate crisis.

The 95 million residential and commercial buildings in the United States account for about 28 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of that total are “indirect emissions”—the carbon actually comes out of the stacks at power plants that generate the electricity used for the buildings’ lighting, air conditioning, and electric heating. The remaining 12 percent—about as much as the entire country of Brazil or slightly more than all of Germany—are “direct emissions,” primarily from natural gas and heating oil burned in the buildings themselves to heat them and their water.

The challenge is to clean up both kinds of emissions. The U.S. electricity sector is already getting greener: Its emissions have dropped by nearly 30 percent from a 2005 peak, largely as a result of renewable energy sources like wind and solar replacing coal and natural gas in power plants. That trend will only accelerate in coming years as more renewable energy sources come online.

To fully decarbonize the nation’s buildings, though, direct emissions will need to be addressed—and the best way, experts say, is to convert buildings to run only on electricity. If all new construction in the U.S. were built all-electric starting in 2022, the building sector’s overall emissions would drop by 11 percent by 2050, according to analyses from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency and sustainability issues.

RMI also found that retrofitting existing buildings with all electric components, starting in 2030, would push the sectors’ emissions down by 90 percent by 2050, says RMI’s Mike Henchen. In what may be the most ambitious effort to address building emissions, New York City passed a 2019 law requiring most of its bigger buildings, both commercial and residential, to reduce their emissions 40 percent by 2030. (The Empire State building has already hit that target.)

“We’re already very deep in the hole, and we can’t just keep digging it deeper,” says Sara Baldwin, a buildings expert at Energy Innovation, a climate and energy research center.

Natural gas losing ground

Natural gas was once marketed as a clean alternative to coal and oil, touted as a “bridge fuel” that could help reduce overall carbon emissions while still providing reliable, cheap energy. But its role in a lower-carbon future is now in question.

Natural gas is primarily made up of methane, or CH4, but when it is burned, it mostly converts to CO2, contributing—albeit less than coal- or oil-burning—to the long-term atmospheric buildup of that principal greenhouse gas. But on top of that, methane is itself an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas, one that, in the decade or two it takes to convert naturally to CO2 in the atmosphere, is 84 times as good at trapping heat near Earth’s surface.

Thus when natural gas escapes from a leaky stove or from somewhere along the three million miles of pipeline that criss-cross the U.S., it can contribute powerfully to warming. Many of the lines along the vast distribution network are old and in need of maintenance or replacement. Some recent studies suggest that natural gas pipeline infrastructure is leaking up to five times more than previously estimated. Those leaks may have potentially dangerous health and safety as well as climate effects.

What’s more, since 2009, the costs of maintaining gas distribution systems has tripled, according to analysis from the Rocky Mountain Institute, and maintenance costs will likely to continue to rise. Those costs get passed along to consumers. In California, the state energy commission projects consumers could expect to pay more than double for their gas by 2050.

On average, one new natural gas customer gets hooked up every minute, the gas association said in a 2018 report. That means about 500,000 new hookups per year that could be avoided with electrification, says Baldwin.

“Once you build new homes, and put in natural gas pipes, people tend to stick with that,” says Ken Gillingham, an environmental and energy economist at Yale University.

“Taking [gas] away would have devastating impacts without the environmental benefits some claim,” the gas association warned in its emailed statement.

The revolution could be complicated

Today, one in four Americans lives in an all-electric home, mostly in the South, where air conditioning is more of a concern than heating. But all-electric construction is expanding in cooler climates, as installation and construction costs decline and technology improves. The performance of electric heat pumps has improved so much that Maine, which depends more on heating oil than any other state, passed a law in 2019 calling for heat pumps to be installed in 100,000 homes by 2025.

One of the most complicated challenges in converting from gas to all-electric is maintaining affordable utility costs. For example, 70 percent of residents of low-income communities are renters who could get slammed on several fronts. If their housing converts to all-electric, utility bills will go up if the renovation leaves out necessary changes like upgrading insulation or adding efficient appliances. Upgrading housing, in turn, can encourage gentrification, driving low-income people out of their neighborhoods. And in the long term, as more gas customers end their gas service, those who remain could find themselves saddled with larger bills, because the fixed costs of the distribution system are borne by a smaller pool of customers.

Personal preferences can also get in the way of the conversion to all-electric. “People get really emotional about their gas stoves,” says Fei Wang, a buildings expert at the energy analytics firm Wood Mackenzie. Some professional chefs in particular have expressed their love of gas flames— though others have embraced magnetic induction stoves, the vanguard of electric cooking technology. The California Restaurant Association sued the city of Berkeley six week before the new ordinance took effect last year, and some cities like Denver have specifically carved out exceptions so people can keep their stoves.

All of these issues contribute to slowing the transition off gas. Although local ordinances have the advantage of allowing cities to tailor their climate goals to their constituents’ willingness to accept change, the resulting patchwork move to all-electric isn’t happening fast enough, says Ted Lamm, an expert at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.

The Washington State legislature is considering an ambitious bill to prevent fossil fuel use in new buildings after 2027, and California is in the process of updating building codes that will likely require all new construction to be “electric-ready” by 2023. But without more sweeping state or federal legislation, Lamm says, the pace will not pick up enough to achieve the benefits that all-electric promises.

“It’s great to iterate. It’s not so great when we have a very hard deadline on the other end that we need to meet,” he says, referring to the urgency of the climate problem. “It’s just not fast enough for what needs to happen.”

Baby steps

When Berkeley began considering its ban, the city had already been looking hard for new ways to shrink its carbon footprint. It had already installed LED light bulbs in the city’s 76,000 street lights and added bike paths and charging stations for electric vehicles. But it was far from hitting the emissions-reductions goals it had set for itself in 2009.

Harrison, the city council member, knew that the urgency to address the problem was only growing, as residents found their homes blanketed in smoke from climate-intensified wildfires and sweltering in record-breaking heat waves. After reviewing the city’s building code, council members concluded they could legally adjust it.

Harrison, who had already converted her own home to all-electric after her gas boiler failed, gave a demonstration of an induction stove to bolster the case for giving up gas. By July, the measure passed unanimously and with popular support, including from Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s fifth largest distributor of natural gas and electricity.

The new ordinance leaves for another day the question of how to get all of Berkeley’s existing buildings off gas. But to Wang, the Wood Mackenzie analyst, it’s much better than nothing.

“It doesn’t have to be everything,” she says. “Just start somewhere.”

Clean Mobility: An Evaluation of CA’s Equity Achievements – and Mistakes

By Melanie Curry
StreetsblogCal

California has been investing a lot of money towards trying to shift the state’s transportation towards a system that contributes to the well-being of the planet and its people, rather than its headlong just-build-more-highways tradition of the last fifty years.

A key stated component of many of the state’s programs has been making sure they benefit everyone, not just those who can afford to take advantage of the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, for example. That program offers CA residents a financial incentive for buying an electric or hybrid vehicle, but the price of an EV, even with an incentive, is out of range for many California residents.

And since low-income communities of color typically suffer from disproportionate air pollution and inadequate mobility options, focusing funding and program efforts on them not only is the right thing to do, it can benefit everyone. If done right, fighting climate change, cleaning up air quality, and providing more mobility choices can reduce traffic and car dependency, improve health outcomes, make communities better places to live and work, and help reduce the racial wealth gap.

And there’s a growing recognition that without doing all of this, the fight against climate change will go nowhere. “The evidence clearly shows that a clean transportation revolution will fail to adequately address climate change if it does nothing to wean us off of automobile dependency; fails to liberate us from traffic; continues to expand highways at the expense of walking, biking and public transit; and if we do not drastically reform the way that we fund transportation,” according to a new report from The Greenlining Institute, Clean Mobility Equity: A Playbook.

It’s all new territory. Many of California’s “clean mobility” programs are still in their pilot phases, in the midst of experimenting with innovative strategies. California has been trying out new ideas based on research and public input, but not so much on experience.

The Greenlining Institute’s report is focused on where these programs are working, where they need adjusting, and which should have major overhauls to help the state reach its goals. The information is meant both for California policymakers as well as decision makers in other states and the federal government. It’s an invitation to learn from California’s experience so far.

The report identifies ways California’s existing programs work well to improve equity, presenting these as “best practices” for other programs to follow. As an example, it’s important to take a “multi-sector” approach. This is because equity is integral to other goals, such as good health outcomes, and a holistic approach is the only way to efficiently meet all those goals. One best practice noted is to “require clean mobility programs to integrate approaches beyond greenhouse gas reduction, improved air quality or vehicle-miles-reduction” by considering things like “sustainable land-use patterns, use of vehicles during off times for community needs and emergency response, improved active transportation infrastructure, workforce development and quality jobs.”

Other best practices include requiring community-driven anti-displacement strategies; fund community capacity building and technical assistance; build off existing programs; streamline and coordinate outreach for overlapping programs, and target funding towards communities most harmed by systemic racism, and establish paths towards wealth-building.

These are all things that California is doing, or trying to do, with spotty success.

The report makes three basic recommendations derived from its analysis. First, scale up programs that are working to increase equity and are led by communities, such as the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project. Second, coordinate and standardize programs to avoid duplication, and target funding towards those who need it most. For example, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project “has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, yet it disproportionately benefits middle and higher-income white people. Our limited federal and state funds should instead be designated for more equitable programs like Clean Cars 4 All and the Clean Vehicle Assistance Program that are designed to reduce transportation disparities, not widen them.”

A third recommendation from the report is to phase out programs that entrench dependency on single-occupancy vehicles.

California has disproportionately funneled dollars into the programs that subsidize electric vehicle purchases—yet this is not sufficient to solve the climate crisis. Governments at all levels should still continue to facilitate a transition to vehicle electrification focusing on the people who face the most barriers to access, but in the long run must foster policies that reduce congestion, vehicle trips and unsustainable land use patterns. While some regions are indeed inherently more car dependent, in these areas state and federal funds should fund programs that reduce the need for costly car ownership, such as Our Community CarShare, Green Raiteros, Ecosystem of Shared Mobility, the Agricultural Workers Vanpool Project, the Rural School Bus Pilot, and more.

But this is just the beginning. The report details Greenlining’s standards for equitable investments, and then analyzes 21 state programs. They include the Air Resources Board’s Sustainable Transportation Equity Project, the Clean Mobility Options Voucher Pilot Program, car-sharing at affordable housing, community car-share, the Agricultural Workers Vanpool Project, the California Energy Commission’s School Bus Replacement Program, and the community-owned mobility project, Green Raiteros.

Recommendations include: incorporate a vehicle purchase price cap in the EV incentives program; clarify and reduce the tax consequences for low-income households of receiving a voucher; allow all participants in Clean Cars 4 All to opt for a voucher for a “mobility option” such as an e-bike or transit pass (only one region has introduced the e-bike option so far).

The report concludes:

The case studies included within this equity evaluation are innovative, exciting programs and many had never been tried before. As with most pilot projects, things have not always run smoothly—understandably there have been delays, missteps and, most importantly, lessons learned. Yet this experimentation has allowed program administrators, advocates and other stakeholders to continuously evolve our understanding of how to develop and deploy clean mobility programs that truly center equity.

After centuries of injustice, society owes it to low-income communities of color to eliminate the programs that are not delivering on equity, improve existing ones, and allocate more funding to the most equitable programs. However it is critical to think in the long term to sustain the most equitable clean mobility programs past the pilot phase. To get there, we will need comprehensive strategies to secure long-term funding mechanisms and to cultivate community capacity.

New Report Highlights Medical Debt Crisis & Solutions

Top Cause of U.S. Bankruptcies, Worsened by COVID, Hits Communities of Color Hardest 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Medical debt, long the leading cause of U.S. bankruptcies, has been greatly worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic – but the problem is solvable according to a new Greenlining Institute report, Solving the Medical Debt Crisis.

Even before the pandemic – which cost over five million Americans their employee health coverage as many ran up unexpected medical and hospital bills – medical debt caused approximately 62% of bankruptcies. And its impact was not distributed equally, Greenlining’s analysis shows: Nationally, about one third of Black adults have past-due medical debt, compared to less than a quarter of Whites. In California, people of color are more than half again as likely as Whites to have some sort of past-due debt in collections.

As bad as the problem is, Greenlining concludes that state and national actions could go a long way to solving it.

“Medical debt is a crisis, but it’s fixable,” said report author Brianna Wells, Greenlining’s Health Equity Fellow. “Health care systems and the federal and state governments can and should act to remove this crushing burden from millions of American families.”

Key policy recommendations include:

• Expand comprehensive financial assistance policies for all large, for-profit health care facilities, including ambulatory surgical centers and outpatient clinics.

• End the practice of turning over medical debt to third-party collection agencies and prohibit such agencies from reporting medical debt to credit reporting bureaus.

• Mandate public reporting of debt collection practices by healthcare providers.

• Center medical debt elimination as a part of California’s COVID-19 recovery package via measures such as the proposed COVID-19 Medical Debt Collection Relief Act, which would suspend the collection of medical debt retroactively from February 1, 2020 until the “end of the public health emergency” and ban wage garnishment and bank account seizure.

• Cancel medical debt outright. The government can purchase medical debt from debt collectors and health care providers at discounted rates, aiding consumers while avoiding a financial windfall for debt collectors.

• Incorporate debt cancellation into California’s larger strategy toward reparations for racial injustice. Closing the racial wealth gap by addressing debt (including medical debt) in California requires a reparations package for the Black community.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

5 Organizations Empowering Marginalized Communities In California

Wiki.ezvid.com

California is home to a very diverse population, with a significant number of residents who are underrepresented by our present forms of social organization. This list, presented in no particular order, highlights some institutions working to improve the lives of marginalized populations in the Golden State.

Read the full article here.

New Report: California’s Clean Mobility Programs Can Guide National Efforts

Mobility Equity Can Drive Progress in Underserved Communities 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As the Biden administration advances ambitious proposals to spur the transition to electric vehicles and promote clean transportation and environmental justice, The Greenlining Institute has released a detailed examination of California’s pioneering programs aimed at similar goals: Clean Mobility Equity: A Playbook. California’s experiences could provide lessons for the rest of the country.

As Caltrans recently acknowledged, past transportation projects divided and harmed communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. In recent years the state has launched a variety of pilot programs designed to promote both clean mobility and racial/economic equity, hoping to fight climate change while beginning to right some past wrongs. These programs, ranging from clean vehicle purchase assistance to a low-emissions vanpool program for agricultural workers and other forms of electric shared mobility, represent the future of mobility both in California and nationwide.

“Clean mobility can do more than just fight climate change,” noted Hana Creger, lead author of the report. “It can build community and create new opportunities in the neighborhoods that for too long have had the least. The Biden administration should look at California’s example and copy what works.”

Greenlining conducted a detailed equity evaluation of a dozen of these pilot programs based on the organization’s Six Standards of Equitable Investment – standards emphasizing that programs need to be driven by community-identified needs and provide intentional benefits to underserved communities.

In addition to specific suggestions for the individual programs, Creger and her co-authors created a broad set of recommendations for policymakers in California and throughout the U.S. who seek to build a clean transportation system that truly serves all communities. Key recommendations include:

  • Overall, public funds from states and the federal government should be vastly increased and prioritized to improve access to clean mobility for the populations who face the biggest barriers to adopting this technology, such as low-income communities and communities of color.
  • The best programs take a comprehensive approach to mobility equity and are led by the communities they impact, such as the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project. Such programs should be funded in California and scaled nationally.
  • California should institute structural reforms to improve interagency coordination and funding in order to maximize available resources for clean mobility investments and target them to the people with the most barriers. Multiple, overlapping programs lead to duplication and inefficiencies.
  • Programs that continue to entrench our dependency on single-occupancy vehicles should be phased out over time. While electric vehicles represent a major improvement over gasoline vehicles in terms of climate impacts and the transition to cleaner cars must continue, in the long haul we need policies that reduce congestion, vehicle trips and unsustainable land use patterns.

Chanell Fletcher, Deputy Executive Officer of Environmental Justice at the California Air Resources Board, praised the report: “We know how essential clean transportation is for low-income communities and communities of color. This report is an amazing resource that will elevate the variety of California clean mobility equity pilot programs. These programs will fight climate change, reduce air pollution, and most importantly improve access to opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

The Greenlining Institute Announces New Strategic Plan

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As the U.S. increasingly grapples with racial equity issues and a year and a half after Debra Gore-Mann became the organization’s first woman of color President and CEO, The Greenlining Institute is launching a new Strategic Plan to guide its work over the next three years.

The Strategic Plan commits Greenlining to working “towards a future where communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.” It focuses the organization’s efforts on creation of a “just economy” that is “cooperative, sustainable, participatory, fair and healthy.”

To get there, Greenlining will focus on its three main roles:

  • Bridge builders, bringing together diverse players from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to create powerful solutions for lasting change.
  • Advocates, leading strategy and policy efforts, raising the visibility of issues that impact communities of color, and building political will for transformative policies to end racial inequity.
  • Incubators, working with communities to generate and test new policies and programs while training multi-ethnic leaders so they can be the strongest and most resilient advocates for change.

In order to more effectively push for systemic change, Greenlining is realigning its internal staff structure to more precisely achieve the new plan’s priorities, while maintaining its ongoing work on issues such as banking, housing, climate, health and access to technology, including crucial work with regulatory bodies such as the California Public Utilities Commission and Federal Reserve.

“Since our founding, Greenlining has brought literally hundreds of billions of dollars in investment into communities of color, but dollars – even when equitably distributed – aren’t enough,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “While we work to meet the immediate needs of underserved communities, we’re going to redouble our efforts to fundamentally transform the systems that created these inequities in the first place.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

 

Advancing Equitable Electric Mobility and Ensuring Equitable Implementation

Addressing systems of inequity and racism in transportation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 17,2021

PORTLAND, ORE. – Forth and The Greenlining Institute have created the Toward Equitable Electric Mobility (TEEM) community of practice that aims to develop a national agenda for equitable electric mobility.

TEEM includes 21 organizations from across the U.S.focused on equity, public health, transportation, and clean energy. The cohort will build on local and state-level policy and harnesses the potential of growing Federal support for environmental justice and clean transportation as the Biden administration’s clean transportation commitments open up new fields of possibility.

TEEM’s peer-to-peer advocates will share best practices and develop strategies to advance electric mobility and engage local stakeholders to ensure that implementation on transportation programs happens in an equitable and efficient way.

The Biden Administration’s recent Executive Order on addressing climate change outlined an ambitious set of proposals to spur the transition to electric vehicles, promote clean energy jobs, and deliver environmental justice.

“TEEM’s work is based on the belief that we must engage with local stakeholders on these proposals so that implementation happens in an equitable and efficient way,” said Alexa Diaz, Program Manager at Forth. “It is vital that we learn from the existing electrification and clean energy movements already happening across the country and build networks to share best practices and coordinate regional efforts.”

TEEM will focus efforts on building community in the cohort and setting the foundation for equitable electric mobility policies and programs in Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia before increasing the scope of the program to additional states. We will also share best practices and lessons learned from Greenlining and Forth’s work in California and Oregon.

TEEM will:

  • Build capacity for equity-focused and mainstream environmental organizations through funding and technical training on topics around racial equity and electric mobility
  • Foster relationships between equity-focused and mainstream environmental and transportation organizations
  • Provide state-specific policy strategizing for equitable electric mobility
  • Co-develop equitable clean mobility tools, resources, and strategies

“A transportation revolution has begun, but if we’re not careful we risk a sort of ‘transportation redlining,’ in which new, clean mobility options go to the white and wealthy first,” said Isa Gaillard, environmental equity program manager at The Greenlining Institute. “For both justice and the state of our climate, we have to do better, and that’s what TEEM is about.”

“SEEA is grateful to be a part of the Towards Equitable Electric Mobility initiative working to ensure that every person benefits from cleaner transportation,” said Anne Blair of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA).

More information can be found here. Please contact program managers Alexa Diaz and Isa Gaillard at alexad@forthmobility.org and isa.gaillard@greenlining.org with any questions.

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Forth is a nonprofit organization advancing electric, shared and smart transportation through innovation, demonstration, advocacy, and engagement. Learn more at www.forthmobility.org. Media Contact: Kevin Friedman – kevinf@forthmobility.org, 503-381-4085

The Greenlining Institute works towards a future where communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change. Learn more at www.greenlining.org. Media Contact: Bruce Mirken – brucem@greenlining.org, 415-846-7758

Tenant screening software faces national reckoning

By Cyrus Farivar
NBC News

In November 2018, Marco Antonio Fernandez, returned home after a yearlong Navy deployment in South Korea and searched for an apartment near his next posting in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Fernandez, whose national security work had already earned him a top-secret clearance, had little to worry about when he was asked to undergo a tenant screening — a process involving credit, criminal records and eviction checks. But the screening’s algorithm-based software rejected him for an apartment: It found he had a drug conviction and three misdemeanors for petty theft. That’s because it confused him with Marco Alberto Fernandez Santana, an alleged Mexican drug trafficker.

The correct Fernandez sued RentGrow, a tenant screening firm, in a proposed class-action filed in Baltimore in April 2019, and has now also similarly sued CoreLogic Credco, a division of a larger property analytics firm, CoreLogic, in federal court in San Diego last July. In both cases, Fernandez says the groups violated the 51-year-old Fair Credit Reporting Act, which allows consumers to see and challenge data held by private companies about them. Fernandez’ lawyers said in court papers that the “inaccurate reporting will follow Plaintiff for the rest of his career as he is reinvestigated every five years to maintain his Top Secret security clearance.”

The judge in San Diego has put the case on hold until the Supreme Court rules in a related case that is set to be heard this month. Across the country in Baltimore, RentGrow has also asked that the judge issue a stay.

Housing law advocates say that Marco Antonio Fernandez is one of thousands of people who are mistakenly flagged by tenant screening software that culls criminal records data from many sources and that is made by CoreLogic, RentGrow, RealPage, AppFolio and a handful of other companies. This industry has accelerated over the last two decades as the rental market has increased and the digitization and real estate analytics market has boomed. Nearly all landlords now use some sort of tenant screening software as a way to find who they consider to be the highest-quality tenants.

“The status quo disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations,” said Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow in governance studies and the director of the Center for Technology Innovation, at the Brookings Institution, who has studied algorithmic bias. “I think first and foremost we need to solidify privacy law: We have a better grasp on what is being collected, how long and being transparent about that data. That’s fundamental.”

It’s big business, too: Real estate tech and tenancy screening firms have drawn the interest of Wall Street investors in recent years. Data from PitchBook, a financial data firm, shows that the number of private equity deals in this area has jumped in total value from $1.7 billion in 2018 to $6.9 billion in 2019 and $6.6 billion in 2020.

Some companies have learned they want to stay away. Last July, CoreLogic formally announced that it would divest itself from this part of its business, possibly because of lawsuits, and possibly because this division wasn’t making enough money. As of February, CoreLogic told investors it is entirely out of the tenant screening business.

Other companies, however, only see its potential. Stone Capital and Insight Partners acquired CoreLogic for about $6 billion in February, while another private equity firm, Thoma Bravo, acquired RealPage for $9.6 billion in December. Meanwhile, AppFolio was recently dubbed the fastest-growing company in America, according to Fortune magazine. Stone Capital, Insight Partners and Thoma Bravo did not respond to requests for comment.

Legal tests

But as the industry has grown, so have the lawsuits. Scores of people have sued alleging similar mistakes by these companies in recent years. And this may be the year the industry is forced to change.

The relatively new subset of credit reporting, the $3 billion tenant screening industry, which has both grown and gone largely unregulated since its inception, is about to be tested in new ways. In 2021, a notable lawsuit in Connecticut that could stop how this type of software is used has a good chance of going to trial. At the same time, California legislators are trying to figure out how to reduce algorithmic bias in industries like housing.

This credit reporting issue doesn’t just touch housing, but other kinds of credit-based background searches as well. Fernandez’ San Diego case has been put on hold until lawyers know the outcome of Transunion v. Ramirez in the Supreme Court. The case involves a man from Fremont, California, who tried to obtain a car loan, but was erroneously flagged — like Fernandez — for being on a federal list that prevents American companies from doing business with them. This list is usually reserved for wanted criminals and terror suspects.

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument in Transunion on March 31. The justices are being asked to decide whether class-action status should have been granted, and whether members of that class who did not suffer the same injury as the plaintiff, Sergio Ramirez, should receive the same amount in damages as him.

Standing up

In 2016, Carmen Arroyo, a medical assistant from Windham, Connecticut, had a simple request for her landlord: She wanted to bring her adult son, Mikhail, home.

Months earlier, Mikhail had been electrocuted while working atop a utility pole, and fell 30 feet to the ground. The accident left him in a coma for six-months, during which he could barely speak, walk or care for himself. After he recovered somewhat, Carmen Arroyo wanted to move the two of them from her one-bedroom apartment, into a two-bedroom apartment in the same complex, ArtSpace Windham, just east of Hartford.

When Arroyo filled out the new application, she assumed that the process would be perfunctory. Mikhail has lived with her before. But, she soon learned that the property manager, WinnResidential, uses CoreLogic’s CrimSafe service and had examined her son’s criminal background.

WinnResidential quickly rejected her, saying that Mikhail had “disqualifying” records. Arroyo could not figure out what the obstacle was. Her leasing agent refused to answer.

“So now I’m not just angry, but I’m trying to figure it out and play detective here because I’m not getting any answers here,” she said. “Everywhere I turned to was a dead end. There were no answers to my questions on why. All of this while I’m trying to work a 40-hour shift and take care of my son at the hospital. It was a lot for me. It makes a person just so upset but at the same time makes you feel like, ‘What is going on?’”

WinnResidential did not respond to requests for comment.

Arroyo contacted the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a legal advocacy group in Hartford, to see if it could help. But the lawyers there quickly learned that the landlord really did not know why the Arroyos had been rejected.

“We obtained documentation from the background check that the landlord had received from CoreLogic, and we noticed that they were not misleading us when they said ‘they had no idea,’” said Salmun Kazerounian, one of Arroyo’s lawyers at the center.

Arroyo’s lawyers eventually determined that Mikhail had been charged in Pennsylvania in 2014 with retail theft for $150, but that the charge was ultimately dropped. Arroyo knew nothing about the charge, and Mikhail was not able to speak about it.

Arroyo’s lawyers sued on her behalf not only under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, where monetary damages and settlements are common, but also under the Fair Housing Act, a key pillar of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The lawyers say that by making claims concerning tenant screening software under the Fair Housing Act, believed to be for the first time, there is a strong likelihood that CoreLogic may be compelled to changes it software and practices. That’s because a critical guidance issued in 2016 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that denying rent based on criminal history could violate the Fair Housing Act.

The legal theory in Arroyo’s lawsuit goes like this: Because Latinos and African Americans are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at higher rates than whites, members of those groups suffer an “unlawful disparate impact” if CoreLogic disqualifies them as prospective tenants based on their criminal history.

In August 2018, CoreLogic’s attorneys argued in a motion to dismiss the case that it was not at fault, because it is simply an outside party: It does not make an affirmative or negative decision to rent a given apartment; only the landlord does that. However, two years later, the judge did not find this argument persuasive.

“RPS [CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions] and WinnResidential acted hand-in-glove to deny Mr. Arroyo housing. RPS allowed screening on the basis of charges that did not lead to a conviction and allowed its customer to conceal from its line staff the basis for an ‘unqualified’ classification,” wrote U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant. “In so doing RPS was an integral participant in the denial of housing by WinnResidential to persons charged with an offense even though the charges were dismissed.”

Eric Dunn, of the National Housing Law Project and a member of the Arroyo legal team, celebrated the ruling.

“The screening companies have been pushing an idea that using decision-only screening shields landlords from discrimination claims on the theory that if landlords don’t even know why they are denying an applicant, then how can they be doing so discriminatorily?” he emailed.

“Of course, as this litigation and many other criminal history screening cases have shown, rental screening algorithms often produce results that disproportionately and unnecessarily exclude BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] applicants or members of other protected classes, ”

For now, Arroyo’s lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in August.

Internal fears

Even the creators of these tenant screening programs are starting to raise concerns. Richard Leurig, who worked at CoreLogic for over a decade, until 2017, used to run the Rental Property Solutions division, which dealt with tenant screening. CoreLogic was one of the early pioneers in tenant screening, but lost market share to newer rivals over time.

“When I went to run it [in 2015], they said you have to meet with the attorneys because we have these ongoing lawsuits,” he recalled, noting that when he stepped into the role, he was tasked with determining whether this was a viable business model for CoreLogic to be in anyway.

“I guess I felt like the captain of a sinking ship,” Leurig said, noting that using a patchwork of criminal data from a myriad of sources was a “fundamentally unsolvable problem.”

Government intervention

Within the last few years, the Federal Trade Commission has pursued lawsuits against two companies, concluding with a $3 million settlement with RealPage in October 2018 and a $4.3 million settlement with AppFolio in December.

RealPage was reminded, as the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires, to “maintain reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy.” AppFolio, for its part, in addition to adhering to the act, was no longer allowed to include “nonconviction criminal or eviction records older than seven years.” In the formal settlement filings submitted to federal courts in Texas, and Washington, D.C., neither company admitted any wrongdoing.

“When you have an increase in the use and the increase in the companies that are furnishing these reports, it’s reasonable to see that you would see more of a widespread problem,” said Tiffany George, an attorney with the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection.

“I think this will continue to be an area of focus for the commission, particularly in light of the wave of evictions as part of the pandemic.”

These companies, including CoreLogic, which either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to make anyone available for an interview, referred questions to the Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade group that represents these companies and traditional credit reporting agencies, including Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. That association defended their members’ algorithmic processes.

“There will be errors,” said Eric Ellman, a senior vice president at the association. “But all of the data that we have seen shows that background checks for employment and background checks for tenant screening are highly accurate and highly reliable.”

In a written response, the association noted that the FTC acknowledged in a 2004 report that such consumer reporting agencies have “market incentives to maintain and improve the accuracy and completeness of the reports they sell.”

However, that same report also noted: “Consumers who were the subject of inaccurate reports had little or no recourse.”

In its statement, the association also said that its member consumer reporting agencies “already have a high degree of accuracy.” But it stated that it supported efforts to “improve the accuracy of public records at the source, where the records are first created.”

Changing laws

For years, there have been some calls for audits of such algorithms, including in a 2019 bill in Congress and even some proposed legislation in New York City. But none have gotten off the ground. Bluntly, it’s not always clear how a meaningful algorithmic audit would even be conducted.

But, in December, a member of the California state Assembly proposed what is believed to be the first serious attempt in any state to regulate algorithmic bias in not only housing, but also lending, hiring and more. It first puts the burden on the companies that made the software themselves, and requires them to explain what they have done in the design of their system.

The bill, the “Automated Decision Systems Accountability Act,” seeks to compel companies to explain before a watchdog group how their algorithms are being tested to mitigate against possible bias or adverse impact on a protected class, such as minorities or women.

“This is dipping the toe in the water of algorithmic regulation,” explained Vinhcent Le, an attorney with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, California, that helped write the bill.

The bill’s author, Ed Chau, a Democrat who represents Monterey Park, a city just east of Los Angeles, said in an email that such algorithms have historically been opaque to most people. As of early March, the bill had not yet been heard in committee.

“Establishing transparency and accountability measures for these systems is increasingly urgent,” Chau wrote. “If we fail to act now, it will become exceedingly difficult to implement these regulations.”

SB 17 Would Create The California Office of Racial Equity

New Office Would Tackle Systemic Inequities

Contact:
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758
Katie Smith, Advancement Project California, Director of Communications, 323-997-2194
Milena Paez, NextGen Policy, Director of Communications, 916-470-8921
Shannan Velayas, Office of Sen. Pan, 916-271-2867
Brandie Campbell, Public Health Advocates, Director of Communications, 844-962-5900 x275

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA – In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic bringing racial inequities in California and throughout the U.S. into sharp relief, the California Legislature is considering a systematic approach to curbing racial inequity via SB 17, introduced in the California Senate by Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). SB 17,  which has now been referred to the Governmental Organization Committee and the Judiciary Committee, builds on the commitment Gov. Gavin Newsom made Tuesday night in his State of the State speech: “When this pandemic ends – and it will end soon – we’re not going back to normal. Normal was never good enough. Normal accepts inequity.”

SB 17 would declare racism a public health crisis and create a state Office of Racial Equity and a Racial Equity Advisory and Accountability Council. These new bodies would be tasked with developing a statewide racial equity framework and concrete strategies for addressing racial inequity across state government.

Data from Advancement Project California’s RACE COUNTS initiative shows that low-income and people of color are less likely to have access to early childhood education programs, have health insurance, own a home, vote, and feel safe in their neighborhood. According to state data, Latino, African American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Californians have suffered disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 deaths. SB 17’s supporters believe the state can and must play a more active role in dismantling racial inequities, particularly those exacerbated by the coronavirus.

If SB 17 is enacted, the Office of Racial Equity and the Racial Equity Advisory and Accountability Council will:

  • Identify existing policies and practices in the state that contribute to, uphold, or exacerbate racial disparities and develop proposals to address these disparities, to be recommended to the Governor’s Office and Legislature.
  • Analyze, develop, evaluate, report on and recommend strategies for advancing racial equity across state agencies, departments and the Office of the Governor.
  • Create and provide a Racial Equity Framework for the state and direct agency Secretaries to develop, adopt and implement Racial Equity Action Plans.
  • Create a budget equity assessment tool to determine whether budget requests and annual allocations benefit or burden communities of color.

SB’17s principal co-authors are Assemblymembers Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) and David Chiu (D-San Francisco). Additional co-authors are Senators Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) and Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) and Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister).

“Extensive research has identified racism as a public health crisis leading to significant health disparities, including infant and maternal mortality, chronic diseases prevalence, life expectancy and now COVID mortality,” said Dr. Richard Pan. “The state needs an independent body to hold us accountable by examining California’s policies and budget with the goal of achieving racial equity and ending systemic racism.”

“These inequities didn’t just happen by chance, they resulted from policy choices – some deliberate, some inadvertent – and they won’t fix themselves automatically,” said Alvaro Sanchez, Vice President of Policy at The Greenlining Institute. “To address structural racism, it has to be someone’s job to identify it and develop concrete strategies to change it.”

“All of the racial inequities we’ve seen in this pandemic have been decades in the making. We can no longer react to the symptoms of systematic racism or nibble around the policy edges,” said John Kim, Executive Director of Advancement Project California. “Passing SB 17 and establishing a State level Office of Racial Equity is crucial to excavating the intersectional nature of structural racism baked into this state’s public systems and policies. A fully resourced and appropriately authorized office is a powerful mechanism not only to stem the tide of bad, racist policies but also to generate new pathways to close the opportunity gap for communities of color throughout the state.”

“State government has a responsibility to address the systemic impacts of institutional racism on the people who call California home,” said Arnold Sowell Jr., Executive Director of NextGen California. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people of color at alarmingly high rates and brought to light decades of structural racism embedded in various policies and programs within the systems of government. SB 17 proposes an important and meaningful solution to address these inequities and will put California farther down the path towards an equitable California for all.”

DeAngelo Mack, Director of State Policy for Public Health Advocates said, “The disproportionate harms caused by racism are undeniable. Its negative effects permeate throughout all California systems. Intentional focus at every level of government is necessary to undo centuries of inequitable policies, practices, and treatment towards communities of color. We strongly support SB 17 and this historic opportunity to greatly improve the health and well-being of all Californians.”

SB 17 is co-sponsored by a combination of racial equity, public health, environmental, and power building organizations:

  • NextGen Policy fights for progressive policies to address environmental, social, racial, and economic inequities in California through justice-centered legislative advocacy, grassroots partnerships, and democratic civic engagement.
  • Public Health Advocates brings a public health lens to today’s most pressing problems, helping communities to pass laws, reform systems, and establish norms that foster justice, equity, and health.
  • Advancement Project California is a multi-racial, multi-generational racial justice organization with expertise in research, advocacy, and policy. We work with partners and communities to expand educational opportunities for California’s children; create healthy and safe neighborhoods; ensure communities of color have a voice in our democracy; strengthen movement-building; and shift public investments toward programs that benefit all Californians—not just the privileged few.
  • The Greenlining Institute envisions a nation where communities of color thrive and race is never a barrier to economic opportunity. Greenlining advances economic opportunity and empowerment for people of color through advocacy, community and coalition building, research, and leadership development.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining