California Fair Housing Advocates Say Banks Should Hold Problematic Landlords Accountable

By Robin Urevich and Jessica Goodheart
This article was produced by the nonprofit journalism publication Capital & Main. It is republished here with permission.

Every time Cecilia Blake’s upstairs neighbor uses the garbage disposal, Blake knows it because “stuff comes down in my sink.” The pipes in her South Los Angeles apartment are chronically leaky, so in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, no sooner is one leak patched than another appears. And because of a persistent rodent problem and a broken screen, Blake says she thinks twice about opening the door to let cool air in on a hot September day. “You’re scared if you do that, the mice are going to run in here.”

Blake, a special education teacher’s aide who also works a second job as a security guard, doesn’t think she can find much better housing in the tight L.A. market.
  
Her landlord, Ram K. Mittal, owns more than 200 buildings under more than 20 companies he controls. Most of the buildings are in South L.A. and surrounding cities. Rats, roaches, mold and leaky pipes are among the more than 450 health and safety violations for which Mittal’s buildings have been cited in Los Angeles County alone between September 2017 and March 2020.

In a written statement, Mittal’s staff at Swami International denied that the buildings operated by his 40-year-old business suffer from neglect: “We receive no benefit from failing to maintain an asset. Rather, it is in our best interest to keep our buildings clean, sanitary, habitable and safe.”

Now, activists in California and New York say the banks that make loans to “problematic landlords” like Mittal should hold them accountable for slum conditions or unfair evictions.

The California Reinvestment Coalition and the Greenlining Institute, both based in the Bay Area and both comprised of hundreds of member housing equity groups and nonprofit lenders and housing developers, argue that financial institutions should play a larger role in addressing the state’s glaring affordable housing needs. One way is by funding affordable housing.
  
Another way is to engage banks in an effort to make sure that landlords to whom they loan money deal fairly and responsibly with tenants.

It is a new strategy that is still untried in California.

Two New York banks — Signature Bank and New York Community Bank — were the first in the country to sign on to a set of best lending practices. Signature, for instance, says it discourages lending that is likely to lead to tenant displacement as well as to landlords with “inadequate building and tenant management practices.”

CRC and Greenlining hoped to achieve a similar first for California with a newly inked community benefits package the groups negotiated this month with Banc of California. But the bank, which has loaned Mittal at least $14.7 million in the past three years — and which CRC and Greenlining said extended credit to seven other landlords the groups deemed “problematic” — balked at committing to hold its borrowers to CRC and Greenlining’s anti-displacement code of conduct for lenders, which includes ensuring landlords comply with tenant protections and checking in with tenants on habitability and other concerns.

The bank did, however, agree to a five-year, more than $1.5 billion community benefits package that includes investments in economic development and a $200 million affordable housing commitment that would result in several hundred units guaranteed by deed restrictions to remain low cost for the long term. Advocates consider such housing, which is subsidized and generally better maintained than other apartments at the lower end of the rental market, a good solution. But there is simply not enough to go around, and most low income workers like Cecilia Blake depend on the private market.

Bank officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the agreement or about its borrowers and policies, but the press statement released in early October by the California Reinvestment Coalition included a statement from John Sotoodeh, Banc of California’s chief operating officer.

“Banc of California has a record of strong CRA performance and a commitment to serving communities throughout Southern California as reflected in our most recent CRA exam,” Sotoodeh said in the statement. “We remain committed to continuing and improving upon this record.”

Rawan Elhalaby, Greenlining’s economic equity senior program manager, calls the pact “a good first step.” “The bank was willing to engage with the community and take feedback to heart,” Elhalaby says.

In return, Greenlining and the CRC agreed to withdraw their opposition to the bank’s acquisition of Pacific Mercantile Bancorp, easing the way for regulatory approval.

The agreement came after CRC and Greenlining had urged federal regulators to deny the Santa Ana-based Banc of California approval to acquire Pacific Mercantile Bancorp unless the bank both used its leverage to convince its borrowers to treat tenants better and provided low and moderate income communities better services.

They argued the Banc of California had fallen short in extending credit to lower income neighborhoods and therefore didn’t comply with the Community Reinvestment Act — a 1970s-era anti-redlining law that regulators must consider before approving a bank expansion.

As evidence, CRC and Greenlining cited bank branch closures in lower income communities and high overdraft fees. They also noted that in 2019, the bank had done virtually all of its home mortgage lending — nearly 96% — in upper income neighborhoods.
  
They aimed some of their sharpest criticism, however, at the bank’s loans to eight “problematic landlords” including Mittal. Collectively, seven of them racked up more than 2,400 health and building code violations from the L.A. County Department of Public Health alone, according to CRC and Greenlining. The groups asked regulators to investigate whether such loans fueled “housing insecurity, uninhabitable living conditions, or damaged credit” for tenants who may have been evicted unfairly.

The bank replied to regulators that it had scored a “satisfactory” rating in its most recent 2018 Community Reinvestment Act evaluation and was committed to serving low income communities. It countered that CRC and Greenlining “cherry-picked” issues to advance their own policy goals.

The bank finally agreed to negotiate with the groups in early September. Greenlining’s Rawan Elhalaby recalls getting a phone call from a bank executive: “I think we can do a deal,” he said. Then came nights and weekends reviewing proposals until the two sides reached an agreement.

CRC’s deputy director, Kevin Stein, says he’s encouraged that further talks with the bank could bring the two sides closer on the question of holding landlords accountable. “Now, we have a relationship and can get them there. We think the bank will listen,” Stein says.

Meanwhile, Jaime Weisberg, senior campaign analyst with the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York City, who works with tenants to enforce Signature Bank’s commitment, says its power lies in the fact that if you are a landlord, “You don’t want to get a call from your lender — that’s the last thing you want.”

Tenants in a Bronx building recently got Signature Bank to make that call. They conducted a virtual tour for the bank’s liaison in which tenants pointed to a broken door that led to drug dealing and prostitution, trash piling up and mouse and cockroach infestations.

Now, Weisberg says the tenants are waiting to see if enlisting the bank in convincing property owners works where other efforts have failed.

For now, Ram Mittal’s tenants don’t have that option. Some say their apartments are plagued with leaks and infested with mice and roaches despite hundreds of health and building code violations and even major lawsuits. Odilia Mateo, who lives in one of Mittal’s buildings in South Los Angeles, can’t lock her front door because the wood is rotten. As soon as she turns the lights off at night, the mice come out. “It seems like they’re having a party,” she says.

In 2019, Mittal agreed to a $1,675,000 settlement after a group of tenants in a building on 61st Street in South L.A.’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood alleged in court papers that a cockroach infestation was so severe that it caused them and their children “to inhale and ingest dead cockroach body parts, cockroach feces, cockroach urine and cockroach allergens.” Rats and mice infested the building too, they said, made worse by water leaks and chronic mold.

Mittal also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum in 2020 to settle a second lawsuit with tenants in a building on W. 206th St. in Torrance who claimed his company knowingly rented them bedbug-infested apartments.

The two buildings named in the lawsuits weren’t used as collateral to secure Banc of California loans. But public records show Mittal borrowed at least $14.7 million from the bank in 2018 and 2019 alone, using 17 of his apartment buildings, including Cecilia Blake’s, as collateral.

Blake believes little if any of the $670,000 Mittal borrowed against her building was spent to improve it. Swami representatives countered that claim by saying that they “reinvest a healthy” and “more than adequate” portion of any proceeds from a loan into keeping their buildings in good repair.

“We consistently remind our residents that we need their cooperation and timely notification whenever a situation arises requiring attention,” the statement said. “We make the repairs as soon as we are aware of the need, and we do so using quality materials and services.”

Last spring, a pipe burst when workers attempted a repair in another apartment. Water seeped into Blake’s bedroom. The wall was soaked, gave way, and left a gaping hole in Blake’s apartment until it finally dried several days later and could be patched up.

The bank told federal regulators that it doesn’t knowingly originate loans on properties with outstanding code violations and that it reviews each loan annually to ensure borrowers comply with loan terms like keeping properties in good repair. It also argued that it performs a “negative news search” on all borrowers. It likely missed a Capital & Main report on Mittal’s Florence-Firestone tenants who eventually filed suit.

None of the 17 properties used as collateral to secure Mittal’s BOC loans were in violation of health codes on the dates the loans were made. But many, like Blake’s building, had received numerous citations before and after. L.A. County health inspectors cited one Mittal property with a Banc of California loan 32 times between 2017 and 2019.

Going forward, CRC and Greenlining may seek a similar agreement with one of the largest banks in the country, US Bank. It plans to acquire Union Bank, which has nearly 400 branches on the West Coast.

But ultimately, bank regulators need to bring their oversight muscle to bear on financial institutions that lend to problematic landlords, says Weisberg, whose organization helped negotiate deals with Signature Bank and New York Community Bank. “These agreements are great to have, she says, “but the implementation is tough. And there’s not the regulatory oversight that requires it.”

 

Copyright Capital & Main

What’s New in Civic Tech: Grants Power Grassroots Digital Equity

By Zack Quaintance and Julia Edinger
Government Technology

The nonprofit organization The Greenlining Institute has announced grants for 10 grassroots organizations in Oakland, Calif., that are working on digital equity projects and initiatives.

The grants are being made through a program called The Town Link, which is a partnership between Greenlining and the city. The overarching goals of the initiative are to increase Internet adoption among residents while also bolstering digital literacy for members of communities that have traditionally lacked Internet access.

This work comes following a Greenlining report that found a connection between communities in the East Bay area that lack broadband and neighborhoods that were redlined starting back in the 1930s.

“As an incubator of innovative policy ideas and an advocate for transformative change, Greenlining exemplifies the values of an Oakland Undivided leadership partner,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in a statement. “Together, our collective impact will ensure that all Oakland public school students have access to the tools at home necessary for a 21st century education: a personal computer, reliable Internet, and culturally responsive tech support.”

In Oakland, 10 community groups will receive $10,000 each, funded by the city. Those groups are El Timpano, Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), Allen Temple Baptist Church, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Homies Empowerment, Oakland Workers Fund, The Unity Council, Roots Community Health Center, St. Mary’s Center, and the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay.

The funding will primarily enable these groups to put computers and tablets in the hands of residents who lack the devices. In addition, it will also go toward training and educational workshops around digital literacy in their communities.

This — and other efforts like it — is part of a growing trend of local government partnering across sectors to address digital literacy. While the work has existed and been important for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of having all residents connected to the Internet and able to use it for vital services. As a result, there has been increased support across sectors — from local government to nonprofits to philanthropies to private companies — for digital inclusion. (Zack Quaintance)

NATION’S MOST POPULOUS COUNTY CONSIDERS WIDE-SPANNING DIGITAL EQUITY REPORT

Los Angeles County, which is the most populous county in the nation, is considering a wide-spanning digital equity report that might have the potential to lead to rapid large-scale deployment of solutions aimed at bringing Internet access to every resident in the county.

The report comes from the internal services department, and it is titled Utilizing Existing Infrastructure and Resources to Accelerate Digital Equity. It’s a public report, submitted late last month, and it includes options for a county-owned municipal broadband service, as well as public-private partnerships, and a set of RFI proposals received from service providers that could lead to new access for as many as 300,000 households that currently lack Internet.

The intention behind all of this is to find effective options that could lead to bolstered Internet access throughout Los Angeles County by the end of the calendar year. (Zack Quaintance)

SAN JOSE, CALIF., TO USE CRYPTOCURRENCY TO HELP RESIDENTS PAY FOR INTERNET

San Jose, Calif., has launched an initiative that will pilot the use of cryptocurrency to help residents pay for Internet over the course of six months.

For this initiative, HNT cryptocurrency tokens will be mined through Helium Hotspot devices in partnership with the California Emerging Technology Fund and Helium. The tokens will be turned into prepaid cash cards to help approximately 1,300 low-income residents pay their Internet costs for one year.

Twenty Helium-compatible hot spots will be deployed and installed over the pilot period. The devices mine the currency with limited environmental impact, needing only the energy of an LED light bulb. In addition, the devices will contribute to the Internet of Things infrastructure, offering improved air quality monitoring, fire detection and other climate-related opportunities to the city.

San Jose is no stranger to the use of civic tech approaches in the service of fostering digital equity, with recent developments such as a digital platform to connect residents with mental health resources and expanding the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund.

Those interested in hosting a Helium hot spot in the city can fill out an online form(Julia Edinger)

AT&T PLANS TO DELIVER HIGH-SPEED FIBER BROADBAND TO VANDERBURGH COUNTY, IND.

Vanderburgh County, Ind., has announced a $39 million project with AT&T that aims to bring high-speed fiber broadband to more than 20,000 households and businesses. According to the announcement, about one-third of the people in unincorporated Vanderburgh County do not presently have dependable broadband access.

The project depends on both funding approval by the county and the signing of a final contract between the two parties. When approved, the county is expected to invest $9.9 million and AT&T would invest $29.7 million. The network is projected to be completed roughly two years following the final agreement.

This is not AT&T’s first investment in Indiana; between 2018-2020, the company has invested over a billion dollars towards improving connectivity in the state. In addition to helping residents and business owners, that investment has helped improve communications through the FirstNet network. (Julia Edinger)

Greenlining Institute Announces Grants to Close Oakland’s Digital Divide

“The Town Link” Grants Fund Digital Inclusion/Literacy, Provide Tablets & Computers

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

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – The Greenlining Institute is pleased to announce grants to 10 grassroots Oakland organizations working to close the digital divide. The program, called “The Town Link,” is a partnership between Greenlining and the City of Oakland aimed at increasing internet adoption and digital literacy in communities that have lacked internet access, including communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. In a report released last year, The Greenlining Institute found a startling correlation between East Bay neighborhoods lacking broadband access and neighborhoods that had been redlined beginning in the 1930s.

“What we’re doing here is really new, involving local community organizations that haven’t traditionally been involved in broadband work but who have strong links to the community, and using those community links to target the digital divide,” said Greenlining Institute Technology Equity Legal Counsel Vinhcent Le. “We’re proud to partner with the City of Oakland on this effort to build digital inclusion and digital literacy, make residents aware of free and affordable broadband plans, and provide computers to residents who need them. You simply can’t participate in the modern economy without broadband, and no Oaklander should be left behind.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said, “As an incubator of innovative policy ideas and an advocate for transformative change, Greenlining exemplifies the values of an #OaklandUndivided leadership partner. Together, our collective impact will ensure that all Oakland public school students have access to the tools at home necessary for a 21st century education: a personal computer, reliable internet, and culturally responsive tech support. Congratulations to the 10 community-based organizations selected to champion outreach and digital inclusion. Together we are Oakland Undivided!”

The 10 local organizations receiving $10,000 each, funded by the City of Oakland, are:

  •         Allen Temple Baptist Church
  •         Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS)
  •         Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI)
  •         El Timpano
  •         Homies Empowerment
  •         Oakland Workers Fund
  •         Roots Community Health Center
  •         St Mary’s Center
  •         The Unity Council
  •         Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay

The funding from Town Link will enable the groups to provide computers and tablets to residents who lack devices, and to conduct trainings and educational workshops in their communities.

“Our community has shared the need for computers, education and affordable, reliable internet,” said Homies Empowerment Partnerships Coordinator J.P. Hailer. “We are very grateful that Town Link is giving us the opportunity to meet the needs of our community by providing technology and digital literacy services so that individuals and families are empowered with the skills and resources they need for daily living.”

“Investing digitally in the AAPI immigrant community is like investing in the next generation of innovation and corporations,” said Shirley Gee, Executive Director of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay. “You never know when a genius is born — note immigrant founders like Steve Chen of YouTube, Eric S. Yuan of Zoom, or Eric Thich Vi Ly of LinkedIn, to name a few.  Not only is The Greenlining Institute bridging the divide with broadband connectivity and digital literacy for communities like ours in the short term, they may very well be seeding the next generation of AAPI corporate founders.  Stay tuned!”

With the announcement of these grants, partners can begin working on their campaigns to be complete by the fall of 2022.

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

Unlocking Access To EVs In Underserved Communities

By Stacy Noblet
Forbes

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. Rapidly decarbonizing this sector is essential to achieving the Biden administration’s commitments to reaching a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 and advancing smart fuel efficiency across the country. In order to meet these goals, steps can be taken across the public and private sectors to ensure fair and equitable access to electric vehicles (EVs). While low-to-moderate income (LMI) and minority communities are typically the most impacted by pollution and poor air quality, EVs are not always readily accessible to these communities, creating a catch-22.

I recently moderated an expert panel discussion presented by the ICF Climate Center about how communities can increase access to electric transportation in underserved communities. I was joined by industry veterans from Exelon EXC +1.6%, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), Greenlining Institute, and Highland Electric Transportation to dive into this topic. We aligned on several actionable steps and best practices to bring the benefits of EVs and other electric transportation technologies to underserved communities across the country.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

Community collaboration drives successful EV programs

It’s imperative that we not only shift our focus to helping communities on a localized level, but take a community-first approach to ensure everything that we’re doing is meeting their needs. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, so we need to invest in understanding the specific barriers to EV access at a city and regional level.

To start, engage with trusted community stakeholders – groups that understand the socioeconomic, policy, and cultural implications of their community better than anyone. These stakeholders are the key to developing and successfully implementing plans, policies, and programs that encourage EV adoption without perpetuating disparities.

The state of California provides one example of leading with community involvement. It created the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group, a coalition of community-based organizations representing local underserved communities. This group is a way for California to ensure that disadvantaged communities are being heard and will benefit from proposed clean energy and pollution reduction programs.

As Román Partida-Lopez, Legal Counsel, Environmental Equity at the Greenlining Institute put it during the panel conversation, “We know if we address the impact for those that have the biggest barriers, we’re finding solutions for everyone else.”

Public and pupil transportation will fuel access at scale

While programs, incentives, and initiatives designed to raise awareness of and access to personal EVs are important, vehicle ownership isn’t practical for everyone, particularly people living in LMI and inner city communities. In these cases, we also need to focus on electrifying public transit fleets at scale.

LMI communities often rely more heavily on public transportation. For example, 60% of low-income students rely on school buses, while only 45% of higher income students rely on them. Of all the school buses in operation in the U.S., 95% are powered by diesel, adding to the pollutants and air quality pitfalls in communities relying more heavily on them.

“School bus electrification is designed to benefit all communities and has tremendous power to do so, but has outsized potential benefits for historically underserved communities,” said Matt Stanberry, Managing Director, Highland Electric Transportation, during the discussion.

Another example of public transportation driving increased EV access is with rideshare. Exelon is partnering with Lyft to provide Baltimore with 100 EVs for a rideshare pilot program beginning later this year.

During the panel, Denise Galambos, Vice President of Utility Oversight at Exelon said, “63% of all rides start or end in low-income areas, 83% of drivers identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, and 65% of all riders identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.” Bringing this program to communities in Baltimore will result in more EVs on the road, increased awareness of EVs, and greater access to income opportunities for community members.

While lower income communities may get more immediate benefits from the direct use of electrified public transportation, improved air quality and lower GHG emissions will benefit the wellbeing of the community as a whole.

Education accelerates equitable access to EVs

Education is one of the most important steps in advancing access to electrification, but it’s a two-way street. Policymakers, utility companies, and other program administrators need to educate themselves about the needs of local communities to best serve them. At the same time, these key stakeholders are well-positioned to lead the charge in education and awareness about the benefits of EVs, as well as the incentives and programs available to make EVs more accessible.

Education initiatives – from town halls to social media campaigns – will look different in every community, which is why engaging and listening to trusted community leaders is essential to their success. As Garrett Fitzgerald, Principal of Electrification at SEPA said during the panel, “Equity doesn’t just mean giving everyone the same tool or resource, but really understanding what it is they need to succeed, and in the context of transportation electrification, understanding how they are or are not being engaged in those direct benefits of transportation electrification.”

The key is to streamline access to educational resources about EVs so communities get a better understanding of the unique advantages and opportunities available to them. For example, Austin Energy created the Plug-In Austin campaign to educate the community about the benefits of EVs, as well as financial incentives, charging locations, and news about electrification in the city of Austin. This program includes interactive and straightforward content, making it easier for everyone in the city to learn about how they can take advantage of electrification.

At the end of the panel conversation, we received a comment from an audience member, reiterating the importance of education, saying, “The benefits of any program cannot be fully realized if people within the communities aren’t aware of them.” While new technology and policies are extremely important to the growth of electrification, education and community outreach are what make it truly relevant for everyone.

Driving equity and access into the transportation electrification space will directly impact lower income and disadvantaged populations, but it will also provide the entire community with benefits such as improved air quality and lower GHG emissions, making it a win-win for everyone.

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What one city’s struggle to ban natural gas says about the challenge of electrifying buildings

By Ysabelle Kempe
Grist

This story is part of the series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which explores the path to low-carbon energy for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. This project is produced in partnership with InvestigateWest and other media outlets.

In late 2019, mere weeks before the first coronavirus case in the U.S. was detected 60 miles south, the city council of Bellingham, Washington, gathered for a presentation from the town’s Climate Action Plan Task Force, a group of nine community members charged with drawing up a roadmap for Bellingham to hit its emission-cutting goals.

In front of a packed house, the task force walked the council through its 50-odd recommendations for the better part of an hour and a half. One of the recommendations split the audience like no other: whether natural gas should be phased out of buildings in Bellingham and replaced with electricity, beginning with new construction, and gradually spreading to existing commercial businesses and homes. Furnaces would be swapped for heat pumps — which run on electricity and can both heat and cool buildings — hot water heaters extracted for electric boilers, and gas stoves and ovens replaced with electric or induction models.

A public comment period later that day ran for nearly two hours. A vast majority of those in opposition to the measure were members of the natural gas, building, and real estate industries, joined by a handful of community members.

An older man wearing a red Trump 2020 hat stepped to the lectern to call the task force’s presentation “idiotic.” Another commented: “How many people really believe that cooking and heating their home in the winter with fire is a critical threat to mankind? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t resonate with me.” A third warned the city council that without gas, no restaurants or small businesses would survive. The calmer sort asked the city council to keep studying the costs and feasibility of electrification.

Local environmental groups had brought other community members to speak up for the measure. There was the owner of a local green construction company, who guaranteed that he could build all-electric homes for market rate. There was the 18-year-old woman who urged the local government to act on climate change for the benefit of her generation.

And then there were the parents, concerned for their children’s future on an overheated planet. “We can’t breathe carbon dioxide, and we can’t eat money,” one said. “When my kids look at me in 20 years, I don’t want them to say ‘You didn’t do anything.’”

In 2018, Bellingham committed to slashing its emissions 85 percent below 2000 levels by midcentury, then began gathering the task force, which would disband in December 2019 after its final recommendations to City Council. One of its nine members, Erin McDade, works for Architecture 2030, a nonprofit pushing to decarbonize buildings. She was convinced that the city couldn’t reach that target if natural gas continued to be burned in homes and businesses. “Using on-site fossil fuels in our buildings is not compatible with being carbon-neutral,” she said. “Whether [the city] knew it or not, when they wrote that in the Climate Action Plan, they were already having that conversation.”

Buildings are a formidable source of planet-warming pollution: Combustion of fossil fuels within them accounts for nearly one-tenth of U.S. emissions — a contribution that triples if you account for the energy sources used off-site to generate electricity. In Bellingham, the building sector accounts for 43 percent of the city’s total emissions, according to a 2018 update to the city’s Climate Action Plan. With many states ramping up efforts to power their grids with clean energy sources like wind and solar, experts consider what’s known as electrification a crucial piece of the decarbonization puzzle.

Real estate developers already have most of the technology to replace furnaces with heat pumps, hot water heaters with electric boilers, and gas stoves with induction cooktops. And because cities and towns control building and energy codes, it’s one of the few areas where they have the power to push through deep emission cuts.

During her time on the Climate Action Plan Task Force, McDade conducted an unofficial study of how much Bellingham could reduce emissions if it required all newly constructed commercial and multifamily buildings taller than three stories to be entirely electric. (Washington state does not allow cities to alter energy codes for single-family homes and two- and three-story multifamily buildings.) She estimated that by 2035, new buildings would be responsible for 17 percent of the city’s building-sector emissions. The city council had the power to avoid all of that.

When McDade first raised the idea in 2018, no cities in the country had banned natural gas in new construction. That’s no longer the case.

Berkeley, California, led the charge in July 2019, when it became the first city in the U.S. to pass such a law. Others have followed suit, including 48 other municipalities in the Golden State. Seattle then passed legislation earlier this year phasing out natural gas in all new commercial buildings and apartment buildings taller than three stories. And the bans may take off in the Northeast soon, with new building-electrification codes in development in municipalities in New YorkVermont, and Massachusetts.

These ordinances have ripple effects that spread beyond city limits, said Alex Ramel, a state representative from Bellingham and an activist with the North American environmental advocacy group Stand.earth. They can inspire similar legislation in nearby towns, as happened in California, or in statehouses.

Earlier this year, Ramel introduced a bill in the Washington State House of Representatives that would prevent new construction from using natural gas for space and water heating by 2030. Even with the roughly decade-long buffer, it died in committee.

“There are still plenty of folks that I would talk to about this, and they’d say ‘Well, can we even do that? Is that efficient? Is it affordable? Is there enough electricity in the grid?’” said Ramel. “There are good answers to all those questions, and if you can say, ‘Yes, I can explain to you why there are good answers,’ that’s one thing.

“If you can say ‘We’re doing it in Bellingham, it’s fine,’ that’s a quicker answer and sometimes more compelling.”

Ramel might soon be able to tout Bellingham as an example. City staff are now drafting an ordinance based on Seattle’s, three years after Erin McDade first advocated for the idea. The delay is not just a result of the slow grind of local government. Bellingham has had to contend with the natural gas industry’s well-funded national campaign against electrification.

Still, if all goes to plan, the city council should be mulling the proposal this winter. The question is whether the city will act more swiftly on existing building electrification, making it one of the first municipalities in the country to do so.

“Knowing what we need to do is the easy part,” McDade said. “How we implement it is, of course, the complicated part — and where the rubber meets the road.”

Bellingham is a progressive college town in a blue state that’s surrounded by nature and brimming with outdoors enthusiasts. The port city sits on the ecologically abundant Salish Sea and is bordered by evergreen forests whose silhouettes cut across vibrant West Coast sunsets. On clear days, the snow-capped Mount Baker is visible from downtown. It seems like a place where passing aggressive action on climate change would be relatively painless.

In 2005, the city council committed to the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, a global initiative enlisting municipalities to take measurable steps toward cutting their emissions and becoming more sustainable. In accordance, Bellingham released its Climate Protection Action Plan two years later, leading to the task force McDade joined.

The nine people on the task force were volunteers, with one exception: Lynn Murphy, an employee of the local utility Puget Sound Energy who represented the interest of her employer, as well as Cascade Natural Gas, another utility. From McDade’s perspective, everyone on the task force except Murphy believed in the goal of mapping the city’s road to zero emissions. When the group voted on its final recommendations to the city council in 2019, all the measures passed unanimously, except those relating to building electrification and a handful regarding renewable energy generation. Murphy was the only one who voted against them.

In an email to Grist, Murphy touted her 13 years advancing clean energy initiatives in the community. She saw it as her job to weigh the merits of different actions. “My work on the task force was to evaluate the feasibility, costs, and impacts of proposed climate action measures as directed by the [City] Council’s resolution.” Puget Sound Energy, her employer, said that it “felt some of the measures lacked feasibility and understanding of the potential negative impacts to our customers,” according to Janet Kim, the utility’s public relations manager.

Alyn Spector, an energy efficiency policy manager at Cascade Natural Gas, said in an email to Grist that the region cannot afford to limit innovation to “a single fuel source or technology, which is the basis of electrification.” The company believes that the best process empowers utilities to “embrace a suite of decarbonization solutions,” he added, including improved energy efficiency, hydrogen, and renewable natural gas.

Renewable natural gas is a catch-all term for methane captured from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and the manure pits found on animal farms. Environmental organizations have criticized its use in buildings on the basis that it is too expensive, in limited supply, and introduces similar safety and health risks as natural gas, namely methane leaks, pipeline explosions, and pollution from nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

The opponents of electrification launched a public relations campaign not long after it became clear that building electrification would likely be included in the task force’s final recommendations to city council. A local building industry group, with the support of Cascade Natural Gas, dispensed pamphlets to homeowners in the latter half of 2019 claiming that electrifying the typical existing Bellingham home would cost between $36,050 and $82,750.

The pamphlet, which features data from Puget Sound Energy as well as fossil fuel and construction companies, concluded that the conversion from natural gas to all-electric could price more than 9,000 Bellingham households out of the housing market. It urged citizens to attend task force meetings to voice their concerns.

Members of the local building and real estate industries were frustrated with what they viewed as a lack of engagement by the task force and the city, said Rob Lee, executive officer of government affairs for the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, which created the pamphlet. Lee said his group believes in a property owner’s right to choose their energy source, rather than have it mandated. The costs in the pamphlet, he explained, were calculated by local builders.

Left out of the pamphlet, however, were a few key facts about building electrification: For example, heat pumps — which are capable of both heating and cooling homes — are indeed more expensive than standard air conditioners. But they’re often more efficient than natural gas furnaces and can save homeowners money on their utility bills. It also didn’t mention that Bellingham’s task force was proposing to replace water and space heating equipment at the end of its life, not immediately. That’s an important distinction, since the real cost is not simply the full price of new electric equipment, but the difference between new natural gas equipment and new electric equipment.

The pamphlet made the case that electrification is just too expensive. Yet, that’s not always the case, particularly when it comes to new all-electric buildings. There is overwhelming evidence that all-electric new construction is cheaper than the status quo of hooking a building up to both natural gas and electricity.

But the industry’s message took hold, according to McDade. “They scared people pretty bad,” she said. “If I didn’t know anything about this, and I hadn’t been a wonk and done the math, I would have been scared.”

When McDade sat down to calculate the costs herself, the numbers penciled out much differently. She estimated that the upfront cost of electrifying an existing building, before financing, is at most $11,100, around one-third of the industry’s lowest estimate — if natural gas equipment is replaced at the end of its life. She also estimated that building electrification would save a single-family household between $8,000 and $12,600 in utility bills over 20 years.

There are similar fights going on across the country. In the Pacific Northwest, gas companies have banded together to pour millions of dollars into local efforts to promote the fossil fuel as part of a clean energy future. The largest utility in New England was caught outlining a strategy to prevent building decarbonization at an industry conference earlier this year. And several states, including TexasNorth Carolina, and Florida, have passed or introduced legislation stripping municipalities of their authority to phase out natural gas after the industry launched lobbying efforts.

Each city that passes a building electrification ordinance offers lessons for those places looking to be the next to adopt one.

Berkeley’s law placed a strong focus on public safety, targeting explosions and fires associated with natural gas infrastructure, said Sean Armstrong, cofounder of all-electric design engineering company Redwood Energy. This helped it stand up in court when a California restaurant industry group filed a lawsuit arguing the city couldn’t legally favor one energy source over another. The judge who dismissed the lawsuit in July wrote that Berkeley had a right to exercise “its power to regulate building infrastructure to protect public health and safety.

Deepa Sivarajan, the Washington policy manager at the Seattle-based clean energy nonprofit Climate Solutions, said that San Francisco’s Zero Emission Building Task Force engaged labor unions before the city banned natural gas in new buildings last November. The city timed the building electrification policy to line up with the development of a recycled water and drain water piping policy, which is in the works and could create pipe-laying jobs to replace those that would carry natural gas.

Duane Jonlin, who advises the city of Seattle on its energy code, draws on his experience enacting the city’s electrification ordinance and now counsels other municipalities to educate local developers on how to build all-electric structures. According to Jonlin, there’s a significant discrepancy in bid amounts between contractors who have constructed buildings with heat pump-based water heating and those who haven’t. It’s simply a result of experience, Jonlin said, and he expects the gap to eventually shrink.

“The miracle of capitalism kicks in, and people start competing on cost, and they find smarter ways to do things,” he said. “All the places stock all the materials they need as a basic thing, then costs come down.”

As far as new construction goes, the ball is already rolling downhill, gaining speed with each passing month. But advocates have yet to figure out how to smoothly switch all existing buildings from gas to all-electric

“I’ve had my finger on the pulse of this for a long time, and I don’t think any jurisdiction in the world has really solved this problem of existing buildings,” Jonlin said. “Whoever does crack this nut and comes up with a really spiffy thing is going to get a Nobel Prize.”

The issue of electrifying existing buildings is so complex because it requires an upfront cost for the building owner, whether it’s a homeowner living in a property or a landlord.

To cover the expense, homeowners could be allowed to bundle retrofit costs with their mortgages or electrical utilities — the beneficiaries of all this electrification — could be required to provide loans that can be paid back over time on the customer’s bills. To that end, financing roadblocks at the state level need to be removed, say several local environmentalists and policymakers. In Washington state, for example, public utilities can’t provide incentives for customers to switch their natural gas equipment to electric, and vice versa.

McDade has some ideas on how to address those financial challenges: There are natural “intervention points,” such as when a building changes ownership or equipment needs to be replaced, when owners could be required to opt for electric over gas-powered, she said.

Powering buildings with only electricity could be a serious upgrade for affordable housing residents. Cheaper utility bills are even more meaningful for low-income households that often spend a larger share of their income on energy costs. Electrification also protects residents from being exposed to the dangers associated with natural gas, like indoor air pollution.

“When we’re talking about affordable housing, building an all-electric, efficient building, it would be criminal to not do that,” said McDade, the Bellingham task force member.

On the other hand, many experts and advocates worry that building electrification ordinances that are not coupled with a regional coordinated transition off natural gas will leave poorer households shouldering the costs.

People on a low income are more likely to live in older buildings not subject to new building-electrification policies and less likely to pay for the upgrades on their own. If gas companies lose customers as the switch to electricity spreads, those that continue to use natural gas in their homes could be strapped with skyrocketing bills as utilities try to recoup the millions of dollars spent on expanding pipeline infrastructure to deliver the fossil fuel.

Carmelita Miller, senior director of climate equity at California-based nonprofit The Greenlining Institute, said the answer is to avoid having a hodgepodge of city ordinances and instead push through a large-scale transition plan at the state level that addresses these concerns.

“At the moment, a huge population of Californians are unable to pay their utility bills,” Miller said. “And we cannot imagine how much that will get worse if an unplanned transition away from gas happens.”

For now, a building electrification ordinance for new construction looks imminent in Bellingham. But the long, rocky path to success could discourage other jurisdictions from even trying, said Ramel, the Washington state representative. Instead of being able to tell his colleagues in the legislature about how Bellingham created a building-electrification policy, and it was a snap, the story is more about how costly and time-consuming it was.

“Citizens were upset about something they read from their cousin on Facebook,” Ramel said. “It wasn’t true but then the city council had to spend a whole meeting responding to it.”

Nevertheless, McDade remains hopeful that Bellingham will eventually be the first in the country to enact legislation that eliminates carbon emissions from all of its buildings, a step that could lead to the same happening in cities and towns nationwide.

“Being the first at something isn’t just a feather in the cap — you’re creating a precedent that is replicable,” she said. “Once there is one existing building-electrification policy in place, then suddenly, all the rest of the dominoes are so much easier to fall.”

Consumer demand and policy are both pushing sustainable transportation forward, but infrastructure needs to match pace to make it equitable for all

By Elle Hardy
Business Insider

Multiple factors are accelerating the transportation industry’s green transformation — but experts argue it’s policymakers’ job to ensure no one’s left behind.

“We’re going through a revolution in our transportation sector, and we have to do it urgently because of climate change,” Alvaro Sanchez, VP of policy at The Greenlining Institute, said during Insider’s recent virtual event “The Future of Mobility: Data Driving Innovation,” presented by Arity.

“Particularly here in the US, communities of color have been left behind, and those communities have been locked in with poverty and pollution,” Sanchez added. “So as we move forward and we are bringing in a more sustainable, cleaner form of mobility, we want to make sure that we don’t repeat those mistakes of the past.”

This conversation, titled “Transportation and sustainability: How data is enabling a greener future,” also featured Alyssa Muto, director of sustainability and mobility for the City of San Diego and Aditya Jairaj, director of EV marketing and sales at Nissan.

“We have to speed up everything — our adoption of electric vehicles, our policies, our citizen mobilization, to demand that these things happen in our communities. And we’re just getting started,” Sanchez said.

Muto noted that over half of California’s mobile source emissions come from just four cities. Helping residents move toward other options like public transit, walking, and biking is important for lowering emissions, but so is supporting electric vehicles.

“As we see incentive-based programs at the state and federal level for increasing ownership, the charging component is going to be really critical,” she said.

Jairaj pointed out that electric vehicle (EV) industry sales are currently around 3 to 4% of the total market, but those figures are expected to increase to around 40 to 50% by 2030.

“That’s a huge shift, so 250,000 to 8 million [cars] in nine years,” he said. “We’ve got investments in this space — capital markets are spending a lot of money in mobility and EVs.”

Sanchez said that charging infrastructure becomes a policy issue as we consider how existing buildings can be retrofitted without displacing tenants or increasing affordability burdens.

“Policy becomes a really important tool to be thinking about how to deploy these vehicles in a way that’s more equitable for everyone,” he said.

Sanchez pointed to three critical policies in California helping push the transition: the clean trucks rule, where 75% of pickups have to be electric by 2045, the governor’s executive order banning the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035, and a rule that would require the purchase of fleets to be 100% electric by 2035.

“I think the combination of policy and consumer demand is what’s going to drive the adoption of the technology — but we have to be really mindful that the market on its own won’t address the inequities that exist currently in our society,” he said.

With Recall Over, California Must Boldly Move Forward on Equity, Greenlining Institute Says

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

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the whole nation watching, Governor Gavin Newsom has survived the attempt to recall him from office, buoyed by progressive voter turnout. The Greenlining Institute is calling for California to reenergize the push for true racial and economic equity and to reform the state’s dysfunctional recall process.

“Communities of color are California’s majority and it looks like they turned out in serious numbers to reject candidates who claim that systemic racism doesn’t exist, who deny climate change, and who make preposterous claims of voter fraud before the polls were even closed,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “Our communities are still weighed down by the effects of centuries of systemic racism, which are exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and climate disasters. That came from deliberate policy choices and can only be fixed through deliberate policy choices.”

“We urge the governor and legislature to show their commitment to racial equity by moving forward with SB 17 (Pan), which would create a statewide Office of Racial Equity to identify and eliminate racism in state policy and address inequality in state programs,” Gore-Mann said. “It’s time for California to take a systematic approach to ending the racial wealth gap and ensuring that all our state’s communities can prosper. And it’s time to move forward energetically with policies to fight climate change that put equity front and center.”

The Greenlining Institute has been encouraged by recent passage of critically needed climate equity funding. Public opinion polling has consistently shown that, by a greater than two to one margin, Californians think we need to accelerate our actions to fight climate change. The margins are even greater among Black, Asian American Pacific Islander and Latino voters.

“Tackling climate change and confronting systemic racism are not disconnected,” Gore-Mann said. “They are two sides of the same coin, and our communities deserve leadership that understands these realities.

The Greenlining Institute rejects the problematic narrative that falsely pits economic well-being and health against climate action. When we prioritize equity with bold solutions, we can move beyond a zero-sum game and benefit all.

“And finally, California needs to rethink this undemocratic recall process,” Gore-Mann added. “The current system makes it too easy for a small, well-funded minority to replace a leader who has broad public support with someone supported by far fewer Californians.”

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

CA State Budget Bills Fund Critical Climate Equity Priorities

Urgently Needed Dollars Go to Climate Resilience, Transformative Climate Communities and More 

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

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA – With climate disasters in the headlines worldwide, The Greenlining Institute applauded the California State Legislature for passing legislation, SB 155 and SB 170, that provides vital funding to help California’s most underserved communities fight climate change and cope with its increasingly dangerous effects. Earlier this summer, the governor and state legislators passed a budget that included $3.7 billion in spending for climate resilience programs. These budget trailer bills flesh out the details of how that money will be spent.

“California continues to lead by example with this unprecedented level of investment in climate resilience,” said Greenlining Institute Vice President of Policy Alvaro Sanchez. “This funding represents a critical down payment on what must be a long-term effort to protect our climate and build resilience in frontline communities. Communities of color and low-income Californians disproportionately bear the brunt of the climate crisis, and it will take sustained effort to ensure that our communities not only survive but thrive.”

“We thank Gov. Newsom for including these priorities in his May budget revision and the legislature for agreeing to fund them,” Sanchez added. “This couldn’t have gotten done without their collective action and the tireless efforts of countless community advocates.”

Key priorities included in the legislation include:

  • Transformative Climate Communities. This groundbreaking but underfunded climate change program funds local communities to develop integrated programs to cut carbon emissions and create more livable neighborhoods, linking elements like clean transportation and clean energy with affordable housing and more. Despite being chronically underfunded in years past, the program received $115 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year and a commitment to $420 million over three years. The Greenlining Institute will release a detailed equity evaluation of this landmark program later this year.
  • Capacity Building. Environmental racism has left too many communities without the resources needed to compete for investments to cope with increasingly severe heat waves, droughts, floods, etc. The budget provides $10 million this year and a commitment to $10 million next year to launch the Regional Climate Collaboratives program, which builds the capacity of impacted communities to make critical investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • Low-Income Weatherization Program. This vital program, which in some years has gone completely unfunded, helps low-income families weatherize their homes, save energy and preserve health and safety during extreme weather. The program received $15 million in the new budget year targeted at multifamily housing.
  • Zero-Emission Vehicles. The budget provides $150 million in the first year and a commitment to $400 million over three years for equity programs like Clean Cars 4 All, which helps lower-income drivers replace their old, polluting cars with clean vehicles.
  • Urban Greening and Urban Forestry. These programs, which reduce carbon while bringing needed shade and cooling to communities lacking tree cover, receive $60 million for 2021-22 and a commitment to a total of $250 million over three years.
  • Community Resilience Hubs. The legislation also calls for a total of $200 million from 2022-2024 to create a new grant program for community resilience hubs, which would provide integrated delivery of emergency response services in community institutions like libraries and health clinics.

“We’re encouraged by much of what is in this budget legislation, but it’s important to remember that only the first year of funding for these critical programs is guaranteed,” said Sona Mohnot, Greenlining’s Associate Director of Climate Equity. “At The Greenlining Institute, we will keep fighting to ensure California’s frontline communities get the resources they need over the long haul to fight climate change and build healthy, prosperous neighborhoods.”

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

New Report: Fintech Lenders – Not Banks – Dominate Mortgage Market, Regulations Must Catch Up

Fintech Lenders Have 2/3 of the Market but Aren’t Regulated Like Banks

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

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Fintech (financial technology) lenders, referred to officially as nonbanks, now dominate the home mortgage market in California and across the U.S., a new report from The Greenlining Institute finds. But these businesses are not subject to the same rules as banks, meaning their positive potential could be outweighed by risks of discrimination and threats to the stability of the financial system and housing market.

A Fair Financial System: Regulating Fintech and Nonbank Lenders, released today, lays out these risks and proposes new regulatory approaches at both the state and federal levels.

“The U.S. mortgage market has shifted radically since 2009,” said lead author Rawan Elhalaby, The Greenlining Institute’s Senior Economic Equity Program Manager. “Two thirds of mortgages aren’t written by banks, but by fintech lenders who don’t have to follow the same rules as banks. We know almost nothing about their lending patterns or whether or not they discriminate, and there are reasons for concern about their stability. It’s time for financial regulations to catch up to reality.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • Fintech lenders now write two thirds of U.S. mortgages, a 660% increase in market share since 2009. The top three mortgage lenders in California are all nonbanks.
  • We don’t know how this shift in the industry is impacting redlined communities and borrowers of color because of a lack of transparency and reporting requirements. In particular, fintech lenders — which have no branches and take no deposits — are not subject to the federal Community Reinvestment Act, a landmark anti-redlining law designed to encourage banks to invest in underserved communities.
  • All this is occurring as traditional banks close branches in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, effectively abandoning their CRA obligations. This has led to increased market share for nonbanks among Black and Latino households.
  • The lack of transparency and reporting requirements raises serious questions about the financial stability of fintech lenders. There are few overarching federal regulations covering nonbank mortgage lenders, which tend to have little cash on hand and large amounts of debt.

The report offers several policy recommendations to address these concerns, calling on Congress to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to cover fintech lenders, and states to act quickly. The report outlines how states like California can enact state-level regulations, including requiring increased lending transparency through the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, as well as passing a state version of the Community Reinvestment Act. In Illinois, the most recent state to pass a state-level CRA, advocates partnered with legislators to advance a racial equity slate that included these crucial regulations for nonbank lenders.

“State and federal regulations need a drastic overhaul to keep up with these trends and avoid another financial crisis caused by predatory mortgage lending,” said Debra Gore-Mann, President and CEO of The Greenlining Institute. ”These institutions are targeting communities that have been historically denied access to financial products and services from traditional banks. If they continue to be unregulated, that house of cards will collapse on Black and Brown communities first and worst.”

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