As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on a digital and educational divide that has already severely impacted African-American and other children of color, yet another situation on the horizon could further increase disparities by hindering access to crucial technological tools, according to experts.
Michael Russell, an instructor of information technology, security and forensics at the Pittsburgh Technical College, is among tech experts who say two pending cases before the ITC could seriously broaden the digital divide.
Two cases pending before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) are being watched by educators and lawmakers who describe them as deeply troubling. Many big names in technology are under attack – including Amazon, Apple, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony – and tech experts say the outcomes of these cases are absolutely realistic threats to the ability to obtain certain mobile communication devices – an outcome that would increase the digital divide even further during this unprecedented time of online learning.
In a nutshell, Neodron, a company just recently created in Ireland, is seeking to block the import of more than 90 percent of mobile touchscreen devices, like smartphones, tablets and touchscreen laptops, that come into the United States. Neodron doesn’t design or manufacture products within the U.S. Its business plan is to acquire patents and then sue for infringement.
The cases have caught the attention of members of Congress, and those in the tech world express major concern.
“When we talk about digital divide, you’re talking primarily about the availability of high speed internet and its distribution across our nation. The big problem with this patent infringement claim is that the vast majority of inner city schools still have barely sufficient internet connection,” says Michael Russell, the lead instructor for information technology, security and forensics at the Pittsburgh Technical College since 2002.
Russell points out that “the majority of young people who access the internet today access the internet from their smartphones.” Particularly low income children often use their smartphones in order to get on the Internet.
He believes the Neodron case could impact their educational lives.
Russell used the term “patent pirate” when describing the activities of companies like Neodron which acquires patents for the purpose of financial gain. Neodron recently obtained patents from Microchip Technologies, possibly with the motive of filing petitions asking the ITC to investigate and close the U.S. market to nearly all smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In short, Neodron is putting the devices that people rely on at risk amidst a season when they need them most.
According to a statement by the ITC, the complaint “alleges violations of section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 in the importation into the United States and sale of certain touch-controlled mobile devices, computers, and components thereof that infringe patents asserted by the complainant. The complainant requests that the USITC issue a limited exclusion order and cease and desist orders.”
Restricting the import of these devices into the United States would cause educational and personal hardships for people largely dependent on their smartphones and other affected devices.
The issue is so dire that two members of Congress formed a bipartisan partnership to deal with it. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) introduced the Advancing America’s Interests Act to stop patent abuse through the ITC and to assure that the agency adheres to a high standard of public interest.
“The ITC was established to protect U.S. companies and consumers from unfair foreign competition, but in recent years, patent licensing entities have abused the ITC process for financial gain,” said DelBene in a joint release. “This legislation addresses this problem and helps protect American businesses from unfair and unjustified claims.”
Schweikert called the legislation “an important step in the right direction towards reforming the ITC’s unfair imports process to ensure that American businesses have equitable access to protection for their ideas.”
This potential impact of this case cannot be overlooked as African-Americans and other racial minorities have been so disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. As lives have become almost totally dependent upon access to the internet and remote services, the impact of an ITC exclusion order would have a broad reach.
Instead of rushing to get children out the door to catch the school bus and then driving into work, many parents now struggle to manage their children’s education as schools have shifted to remote learning and parents work from home. Government services of all types are now online, from job applications to business licenses to unemployment claims. And then there’s access to health care. Throughout the pandemic, it has become clear that telehealth is surging and is a crucial resource that allows people to protect both their community as a whole and the healthcare workers providing their critical services.
According to a recent study, up to 42 million people may not have access to broadband, a figure that is disproportionately made up of African-Americans and other people of color. But without the devices necessary to even access the internet, the problem becomes worse and communities of color are at a great disadvantage.
A key concern is that since the COVID-19 pandemic, an already serious struggle for low income students of color, has been exacerbated.
The Greenlining Institute, a 27-year-old multi-racial organization in Oakland, Calif. that aims to end economic discrimination such as redlining, conducted a survey of Oakland and Fresno, Calif. residents before COVID-19. The findings were as gloomy as expected. But all of the common themes were “made more urgent by the pandemic”, the Institute reports on its website.
Those common themes include “Internet access is not a luxury; Lack of access creates significant hurdles for everyday life; Smartphone access is insufficient; Internet plans designed for low-income families are inadequate; Lack of access is a barrier to academic success.”
Russell says if Neodron prevails, these issues could expand and get even worse for more people across the nation.
“I’m not only talking about just young people,” he said. “I’m talking about the elderly needing to monitor their health care, making appointments with the doctor and things of that nature. All of those things could be adversely impacted. Mostly inner city; mostly Black and Latino families would continue to have the largest impact.”
As the issue spirals, even more considerations will come into play.
“The educational, financial and personal need for the internet could lead to an even greater conflict than the inability to get online,” says Russell, who also teaches regulatory compliance.
“I do believe that technology has a potential of being another form of warfare,” he says. “I’m really concerned about that. Like economic warfare. We have a company located in another country filing a claim against American corporations that could adversely impact the way we live and do business. That’s a real deal.”
“Greenlined Economy Guidebook” Urges Decision-Makers to Put Community First
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting profound, structural inequities in U.S. society, The Greenlining Institute lays out a bold vision for a more equitable economy and calls for a radical rethinking of community development in its newly published Greenlined Economy Guidebook.
“It’s not enough to just rebuild an economy that’s clearly broken,” said guidebook author Sonrisa Cooper, Greenlining’s Community Development Program Manager. “The pandemic has shown us how deeply racism and inequity are embedded throughout our economy. This guidebook offers a way to rethink how we do everything — from housing and infrastructure to parks, transportation and more — putting community at the center. We need a Greenlined Economy.”
The guidebook offers a path to an economy that is cooperative, regenerative, democratic, non-exploitive and inclusive. It lays out the barriers that currently get in the way of such an economy, including unequal power dynamics that keep community members shut out of decision-making, a top-down mindset, the lack of capacity-building for redlined or disinvested neighborhoods, siloed programs and funding sources, an unwillingness to prioritize grassroots groups, and a system focused heavily on profit.
The guidebook lays out six standards for equitable community investment, followed by concrete examples of how they might be applied in particular situations. The standards are:
1. Emphasize race-conscious solutions, because race-conscious policies like redlining and urban renewal got us to this point, and race-neutral approaches can’t fix it.
2. Prioritize multi-sector approaches, since while programs may be siloed, the problems communities face are not.
3. Deliver intentional benefits to underserved communities, rather than just assuming that benefits will “trickle down.”
4. Build community capacity, which has too often been eroded by long-term disinvestment and discriminatory policies.
5. Be community-driven at every stage, from goal-setting to analysis.
6. Establish paths toward wealth-building that can reach as many as possible and include pathways beyond just homeownership, with lower barriers to entry.
“We’re asking for a dramatic transformation of how things have been done in our economy for a long time,” Cooper said. “Our current economic system isn’t built to meet the needs of communities of color. If the current crisis has shown us anything, it’s that the time to start doing things differently is now.”
Greenlining Institute Study Highlights Barriers for Youth of Color
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With California facing a serious shortage of health care workers as it copes with COVID-19, a new report from The Greenlining Institute looks at the barriers that keep young people of color out of the health field and what can be done to overcome those barriers.
The report, Opening Pathways for Youth of Color: The Future of California’s Health Workforce, notes that while Black, Latino and Native American communities make up 62 percent of California’s people, less than six percent of California physicians are Latino and just five percent are Black. In partnership with the Alameda County Health Pathway Partnership program, Greenlining conducted surveys and a focus group with program alumni to get a picture of the challenges they face in pursuing health careers and what sorts of support would reduce those challenges.
“Young people of color want to work in the health care field, but too many obstacles get in their way,” said report coauthor Christian Beauvoir. “The starkly higher rate of COVID-19 deaths for Black and Latino Californians reminds us how important it is to have a diverse health workforce that can deliver culturally competent care.”
Among the report’s key findings:
Challenges young people of color faced included–
Finances, including cost-prohibitive expenses associated with college applications and tuition,
Transportation, with lengthy commutes and lack of money forcing many to use riskier transportation alternatives to cut costs, and
Lack of support systems to help them get into and navigate higher education.
Key supportive factors participants cited included –
Exposure to a variety of health careers and professionals,
Social support and mentorship, particularly for first-generation and low-income youth, and
Financial assistance that eased the cost burden and reduced the need to choose between further education and holding a job to support themselves and their families.
The report concludes with a series of policy recommendations designed to reduce the barriers cited and increase availability of supports, including passage of Proposition 16 to allow the state to more effectively address racial disparities in education.
The digital divide means millions of American children don’t have broadband connections at home, even as their schools hold virtual classes.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced California schools to close in March, the West Contra Costa Unified School District knew it had a problem. Most of its 29,000 students had school-provided Google Chromebooks, but an estimated quarter of them didn’t have access to reliable internet connectivity at home — something that was vital for attending classes virtually.
Cities like Richmond and San Pablo, which make up the WCCUSD, are nothing like the tech hub of San Francisco, despite being just across the bay. About 90% of the students are Black, indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC (including 54% Latino), and many of the district’s families can’t afford home broadband connections. Students would normally cope by doing their homework in a library or restaurant offering free Wi-Fi. Another lifeline: Sprint’s charitable 1Million Project, which offered free cellular hotspots to about 1,500 WCCUSD students.
Over five months later, it’s back-to-school season. Classes at the WCCUSD will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, thanks to the continued spread of the coronavirus, and the district still hasn’t figured out how to fully address the digital divide, which includes an estimated bill of over $3 million to get its students online.
“It’s been really rough,” Matthew Duffy, superintendent of the WCCUSD, says in an interview. “We’re handcuffed by … how much it’s going to cost.”
As the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the US, schools across the country are figuring out how to hold classes this fall. Some are offering in-person sessions, but others — like the districts that cover 97% of the 6.2 million students in California — are opting for remote learning. Thirteen of the 15 biggest US school districts will be fully remote this fall, with their students attending virtual Zoom sessions or completing their Google Classroom homework online. Nearly half a year after the pandemic first shut down schools, many still don’t know how to make sure all students can attend virtual classes.
This shift online has shined a light on a long-standing problem that’s only gotten more severe in the age of the coronavirus: the so-called homework gap. The country has wrestled with a digital divide for decades, but the pandemic has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations: Students from poorer urban areas and remote rural districts, with minorities disproportionately hurt by lack of access to connectivity. In California, the wealthiest households are 16 times as likely to have access to home internet as the poorest ones, according to the Greenlining Institute. The worry is that the disconnected students, many who are already disadvantaged, will fall even further behind their more affluent peers.
“There’s so much of this crisis we can’t fix,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who coined the term “homework gap” well before the pandemic, says in an interview. “But the homework gap is something we can solve.”
An estimated 18 million people in the US don’t have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a FCC tally from 2020. Experts say the official figures are almost certainly lower than reality because of faulty maps. Another study found about 16.9 million children don’t have the home internet access necessary to support online learning during the pandemic, according to a joint study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS. Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native households are even less likely to have adequate connectivity, with one out of three lacking access at home, that study said.
Schools are being forced to tackle the digital divide problem in their districts, becoming experts in complex broadband options seemingly overnight. That’s on top of grappling with how to make sure their low-income students are fed and healthy, and navigating archaic regulations controlling how they receive funding. Various schools around the country have relied on emergency relief funds from the CARES Act to purchase devices and hotspots for students, while others have begged the public and businesses for help funding equipment.
“Even before the pandemic we had a homework gap,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “We all knew it, we all talked about it. It’s not as if the pandemic created the homework gap, it’s just that we can no longer conveniently have it swept under the rug.”
When the coronavirus exploded in China, it didn’t just kick off the proliferation of the disease. It also caused a shutdown in the production of electronics that we’re still feeling the effects of today.
The result was supply being unable to meet the demands sparked by the lockdown, from high-definition webcams to computer monitors. For Chromebooks, hotspots and other devices for education, shipping delays have been severe.
California’s Department of Education contacted electronics manufacturers and internet service providers to see what devices were available and what they could provide for the state’s schools before remote classes began. It estimated it would need over 700,000 computing devices and more than 300,0000 hotspots to get California students connected this year.
Apple agreed to make up to 1 million iPads available for California schools by the end of 2020. Districts can buy the year-old, seventh-generation iPad — the most recent model available — with cellular capabilities for $379, which is $80 less than what the general public pays and $60 below what students and educators pay on their own. It’s still more expensive than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, which costs $329 for the public or $309 for students and educators, but the built-in LTE helps address the connectivity problem.
T-Mobile’s 4G LTE service for the LTE iPads costs about $12 to $17 a month for unlimited data, depending on the length of the contract, the Education Department says.
“This is a game changer,” Tony Thurmond, California state superintendent of public instruction, says in an interview.
As part of that agreement with California, Apple has agreed to prioritize iPad shipments to the state’s schools as more supply becomes available, he says. The Cupertino, California, company has earmarked over 200,000 iPads for California districts to purchase immediately, he says.
“This is significant at a time when there’s a run on devices worldwide,” Thurmond says, adding that about 70 California districts so far have talked with Apple and T-Mobile about the offer.
At the same time, the state’s Department of Education is coordinating with electronics resellers to source other devices like Android tablets. Chromebooks, in particular, are in high demand but in short supply, says Mary Nicely, a senior policy adviser to Thurmond. One vendor has offered to convert a low-cost Microsoft Windows machine into a Chromebook, she says, and companies like Acer and Lenovo are also “trying to prioritize California.”
“We’re looking at backlog for all of our manufacturers in the millions, but they think that they can get those millions into California by the end of December,” Nicely says in an interview.
Overall, the California Department of Education sent requests to about 100 California companies for help with supplies or donations for remote school this fall. It would cost the state’s districts about $500 million to buy enough hotspots and computing devices for students who don’t have them. Of those requests, only about 10 companies have responded.
“While some companies have made donations, it’s been difficult to get many companies to really lean in,” Thurmond says.
California has the benefit of many Silicon Valley companies reporting huge profits as their technology becomes even more vital to keep people connected. In the June quarter, Apple, Facebook and Google reported a combined $23.4 billion in profit. In mid-August, Apple became the world’s most valuable tech company, worth over $2 trillion.
“I do hold out hope as these corporations figure out their financial situations post-COVID that there will be more money coming in from the private sector,” says Vinhcent Le, technology equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute.
But if one of the richest and most powerful states in the country can’t bridge the digital divide when it’s most dire, what hope do less-connected and poor states have?
A 2.5-hour drive west of Washington DC through forestland and mountains, lies a rural part of West Virginia called Grant County. Most of the 11,600 residents in the 480-square-mile county work on farms, a local power plant, or in nearby factories for poultry production or kitchen-and-bath cabinets.
Grant County is the eighth most sparsely populated county in West Virginia when it comes to students per square mile, the local school district’s superintendent says. Grant County Schools serves 1,630 students, all of whom qualify for government-sponsored meals thanks to the low socioeconomic status of about three-quarters of the county’s residents, says Grant County SchoolsSuperintendent Doug Lambert.
Compounding the problem: Only about 54% of Grant County’s residents have home internet access, and “we’re not sure [they have] the necessary … capacity to do what’s … expected on the internet platforms that we’re going to use,” Lambert says. A school survey found 44% of respondents don’t think their connectivity is fast enough for virtual school.
While about 5.6% of the overall US population lacks broadband internet, according to the FCC, the percentage jumps to 22% in rural areas. Building out high-speed internet networks is prohibitively expensive when there’s only one customer every mile or so. In many rural areas that have some sort of connection, there are only one or two internet providers, and the service available is pricey and spotty. Hospitals, schools and other critical groups have long lacked fast-enough internet to function, and it’s now heavily impacting students who will be learning from home.
Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on connectivity at the Brookings Institution, has proposed parking Wi-Fi-connected buses in rural communities around the US. By one tally, there are about 480,000 school buses that are largely sitting empty. They could be outfitted with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers and parked in underserved neighborhoods to act as community hotspots.
Some schools are doing it. The Florence County School District 2, one of five school districts serving Florence County in South Carolina, parks nine Wi-Fi-enabled school buses in neighborhoods with little broadband access.
“There are going to be traditional routes of access that we’ll be able to see like … hotspots, partnerships with libraries, digital parks,” Turner Lee says in an interview. “But then there’ll be places that we still need to be creative.”
Grant County Schools has given families the option of full-time virtual courses this fall, in-person classes or a hybrid of the two. About 18% of students have signed up for the virtual option, but because of the number of COVID-19 cases in the county, it’s possible that all students will start the academic year remotely.
As a result, come Sept. 8, the first day of school, Grant County Schools faces the possibility that the vast majority of its students will only be educated through paper assignments handed out alongside their free daily meals.
“We will do everything we possibly can to meet the needs of our kids,” Lambert says. “But we are very much hindered in the broadband capacity [of the county].”
Because the area is so poor, many families can’t afford to pay for service in their homes. Using smartphones as hotspots gets expensive really fast. And the county’s topography and remoteness means there are some places that don’t have access to broadband at all, even if the families could afford it.
On top of that, the local internet service provider, Frontier Communications, filed for bankruptcy in April, making it unlikely that it will expand its broadband internet footprint anytime soon.
Unlike many schools around the country, Grant County Schools didn’t offer personal Chromebooks or tablets for students before the pandemic. Instead, it has now refurbished old desktop computers and repurposed the district’s classroom laptops for the families who’ve chosen full virtual classes.
The remaining 1,200 students will have to wait until November at the earliest for their new Chromebooks to arrive. The district paid about $550,000 for 1,650 Lenovo models using money from the CARES Act and other federal funding that it received at the end of June and early July. Not getting the money earlier meant it was at the end of a long list of orders.
“All kids are important, all kids are special,” Lambert says. “What about my kids? Sometimes we’re forgotten because we don’t have political cloud.”
A national plan
Whether they hail from California or West Virginia, many schools hoped to tap into a tool that’s long helped their internet connectivity efforts: a federal assistance program called E-Rate. The FCC-run program provides schools and libraries with internet service that’s discounted by 20% to 90%, depending on the poverty level of the area.
Instead, they found that trying to expand their E-Rate discounts outside of the school walls would hurt them.
When E-Rate was introduced with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it was designed to discount internet service within building, not throughout the community. But some, like the FCC’s Rosenworcel, argue that the E-Rate mandate should be expanded to give schools Wi-Fi hotspots for students with unreliable home internet.
It wouldn’t be without precedent. In 2011, the FCC ran a pilot program with E-Rate, called Learning On-The-Go, to test providing connectivity for netbooks for students living in remote areas, among other efforts.
Since E-Rate is a program schools know well, they would be able to easily navigate the system to get more funding. And because the program is already in place, funding could be distributed quickly.
“It’s increasingly apparent we organize a lot of fundamental things for our students through schools,” Rosenworcel says. E-Rate “is the way to expedite connectivity for the most number of students as fast as possible.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the rest of the panel have resisted, saying E-Rate can’t be used to take steps like distributing hotspots. “Current law specifically allows E-Rate funding only for ‘classrooms,’ not student homes,” the FCC said in a statement. “That’s precisely why since March, Chairman Pai has repeatedly called on Congress to establish and fund a Remote Learning Initiative so that more students can get connected and stay online.”
One of those members of Congress trying to expand connectivity is Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York. She introduced House legislation in late April, the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020, that called for a $2 billion fund to get internet access to kids at home. The FCC would distribute the money to schools and libraries through E-Rate to buy hotspots and other Wi-Fi devices.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel now,” Meng says in an interview. “E-Rate is a known program, it’s a trusted program, and we think it’s the fastest way to go.”
In the Senate, Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, filed a companion bill that same month, called the Emergency Educational Connections Act. The bill, co-signed by half a dozen other Democrats, would provide $4 billion for the FCC to distribute via E-Rate.
While technology funding for disadvantaged students has broad support, the coronavirus stimulus proposals it’s packaged with do not. The Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act, which both contain provisions to fund connectivity, were passed by the House but have stalled in the Senate.
Four months after the two education connectivity bills were proposed, there’s still no additional funding for E-Rate and internet connectivity, forcing districts to cobble together solutions of their own. Schools in places like California have already begun classes, and the rest of the country will begin within the next month.
Grant County Schools had hoped to use its school building E-Rate internet service — which is discounted by 80% from the normal service pricing — to provide connectivity for families and community members outside the school. The FCC wouldn’t allow it.
“We make emergency changes all the time,” Lambert says. “Why can’t we make a change at least temporarily to help us get through this with E-Rate? It’s fallen on deaf ears.”
Instead, Grant County Schools is drawing from $82,000 in funding it received from West Virginia to install five new hotspots around the community. Parents will be able to park their cars outside the new locations — as well as the two county libraries and four schools — to tap into the 20Mbps download and upload connectivity.
But even those 11 community hotspots may not be enough to get students online. The capacity will be shared with whoever’s parked nearby — including the broader community — and it falls below the FCC’s broadband definition of 25Mbps down (though the upload speed is better than the 3Mbps broadband standard).
Calling on the private sector
The private sector has stepped in to fill some of that gap. Carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T have provided discounted or even free service for families. Device vendors have donated Chromebooks and other laptops and tablets.
At the start of the pandemic, Verizon reached a deal to provide discounted unlimited data plans for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest district in the country. Very quickly, it realized other schools would need connectivity for students, and it reformatted its deal to extend it to other districts. The newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program now has agreements to provide “really favorable” data rates to the rest of California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, DC., and 32 other states through its newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program.
“This program is here for as long as COVID-19 is the pandemic that it is,” says Andres Irlando, president of Verizon’s public sector group that oversees its distance learning work. He declined to specify what rates the schools are paying for their data.
Hotspots make it easy for students to get online immediately, are ideal in places without fast wired connections and are helpful for families who are unstable with their living situations. But the longer term solution to keep kids connected is getting them hard wired connections at home, experts say. That’s where companies like Comcast come in.
Through at least the end of 2020, it will stop withholding access from families who have debt less than a year old (it had previously stopped denying service for debt older than that). In March, it boosted the speed of its plan by 10Mbps to 25Mbps, now meeting the FCC threshold for broadband, and it began offering 60 days of free service to families who qualify for Internet Essentials. Comcast also has streamlined its application process to make it easier for families to apply and get approved.
“If you’re a family with a student, more likely than not, you’re guaranteed an expedited application,” says Karima Zedan, who runs Comcast’s Internet Essentials business. “We want to get those households connected as quickly as possible.”
Because it could be tough for some families to afford even $10 a month, Comcast in mid-August introduced its new Internet Essentials Partnership Program that lets cities, schools and nonprofits pay for internet services for families for one or two years. Since the start of the pandemic, Comcast has signed up over 70 schools, covering more than 200,000 students, to the program. Chicago is one district that will make high-speed internet, via Comcast or RCN, available for free to about 100,000 Chicago Public School kids in their homes over the next four years.
“Reliable, high-speed internet is one of the most powerful equalizers when it comes to accessing information,” Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said in a press release announcing the initiative. “This program is a critical component of our … efforts to end poverty.”
In Grant Country, Frontier offers discounted home internet service for families through the federal Lifeline program. It lowers the monthly cost of phone or internet access by up to $9.25, but people who qualify can only get a discount on one of the services.
Across the country, teachersare expecting hiccups as the year gets started virtually. Sara Park, a ninth-grade English teacher at San Francisco Public School’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, says her first week of classes went more smoothly than in the spring — but about 15 of the 95 students in her three classes dropped in and out of the sessions because of connectivity, login and other issues.
“I fear that a digital divide this early within a student’s trajectory … ultimately feeds into a divide in whether or not you’re going to go to college,” Park says. “And [that] then turns into [whether you’re] accessing high paying jobs.”
Even if students have access to the internet and devices, they — or their parents — may not have the digital literacy required to participate in remote school. That includes tasks seemingly as simple as connecting a computer to a hotspot or figuring out how to schedule a meeting on a digital calendar.
“I truly do fear that even if every student has a laptop and hotspot, there’s no ensuring equity,” Park says.
As for the Bay Area’s WCCUSD, the school’s administrators scrambled to find ways to bridge the digital divide in their district as they prepared for remote classes to start on Aug. 17. Eventually, they identified another T-Mobile program, called EmpowerED, that would provide discounted monthly service and waive the hotspot pricing.
Unlike the Sprint 1Million program, which had strict eligibility requirements like only accepting high-school kids, T-Mobile’s EmpowerED is open to more students and is easier to join. But it has a big downside: it’s not free. After a three-month free trial, the WCCUSD has to pay a monthly fee of $20 per student for 4G LTE service. And it has to sign a year contract.
It’s costing the cash-strapped district about $540,000 to equip an additional 3,000 students with hotspots — on top of about $2.5 million it’s paying for 6,000 new Chromebooks.
“It adds up really fast,” says Tracey Logan, chief technology officer for the school district. The fear for the WCCUSD — and countless other schools around the country — is what happens if the pandemic drags into the next academic year. The school district already has to replace about $6 million worth of aging Chromebooks next year, and if even more of its students need home hotspots, the costs could skyrocket.
“It’s not really sustainable beyond a year,” Logan says. “Have we bridged the digital divide? Absolutely not.”
In a groundbreaking win for the environmental justice movement, New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation that aims to limit new pollution sources in neighborhoods already shouldering a disproportionate burden.
The bill, more than a decade in the making, advanced in both chambers of the state Legislature during a fraught political climate that has laid bare the connection between historically racist government policies and current environmental and public health inequities.
After years of effort, the twin forces of the coronavirus pandemic and a national outcry to end systemic racism combined to propel the measure to the governor’s desk. Activists hope the bill’s passage will have ripple effects throughout the U.S.
“It’s a perfect storm of terrible things that hopefully opened up a lot of legislators’ eyes,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, director of environmental justice and community development at the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark. “New Jersey’s not seen as the beacon of progressiveness, so if New Jersey can do it then I’m sure other states will be able to do it.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill, as he made the unusual move of endorsing it before it was passed.
The bill, NJ S232 (20R), is the first of its kind in the country. It requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for power plants, incinerators, landfills, large recycling facilities and sewage treatment plants in certain minority and impoverished neighborhoods if the projects pose health and environmental risks in conjunction with the threats those communities already face. The agency would be required to make a determination that compares the stressors of that community to those other communities face.
More than a dozen states, including California and New York, require cumulative impact assessments as part of the permitting process. But legal and environmental experts say those provisions lack teeth and can be treated as mere boxes to check because the decision is at the discretion of regulators, not mandated based on conditions.
The New Jersey bill“writes very clearly the line in the sand: if it’s not permissible in an affluent community, it shouldn’t be permissible elsewhere,” said Mad Stano, a senior legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute. “That is not something that we have been able to achieve in policy up until this point.”
Environmental justice advocates nationwide have called the legislation the “holy grail” of the movement and know of no other as strong.
Environmental justice campaigns gained traction in the 1980s, growing out of the civil rights movement and research that showed polluting facilities were more likely to be built in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
Those areas came to be known as environmental justice communities, shorthand for their struggles against environmental harm tied to economic and racial injustice.
President Bill Clinton took on the campaign’s mantle in 1994 when he directed federal agencies to address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of programs, policies and activities on low-income and minority populations.
At that time, only four states had laws or rules pertaining to environmental justice, said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a founder of the environmental justice movement. Within two decades, all 50 states had adopted laws or policies, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
At the federal level, the National Environmental Policy Act was amended in 1997 to require agencies to weigh the cumulative impact of projects before permitting them.
The Trump Administration rolled back the requirements in July. Days later, the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog called for a renewed focus on environmental justice, particularly more robust regulatory oversight in burdened communities.
In New Jersey, lawmakers have introduced an environmental justice bill every year since 2008, but the legislation always succumbed to industry opposition.
In 2017, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Democrat and the former mayor of Newark, introduced the federal Environmental Justice Act to codify Clinton’s executive order, a measure that would give regulators power to deny permits based on cumulative impacts. The Booker bill influenced the New Jersey bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Troy Singleton, Loretta Weinberg and Teresa Ruiz, as well as Assembly members John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Britnee Timberlake.
This year, the state bill was going down a familiar path. After it passed a Senate committee in February, the coronavirus pandemic hit, postponing non-emergency efforts indefinitely.
Then it became clear that people of color were dying of Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. In April, a study from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that patients in areas with highly polluted air were more likely to die from the virus than others, confirming another link between environmental degradation and public health.
In May, the country erupted in protests after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died when a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd said, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, a Black man killed in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold.
In Trenton and elsewhere, lawmakers began introducing measures to tackle racial injustice on a structural level.
“Black Lives Matter [connected] ‘I can’t breathe’ when it comes to policing and ‘I can’t breathe’ when it comes to the pollutants choking our communities,” Bullard said.
A month after Floyd’s death, New Jersey lawmakers strengthened the bill’s language to require, rather than allow, regulators to deny permits that would disproportionately cause or contribute to a community’s adverse health and environmental burdens when those burdens were deemed to be greater than those borne by communities elsewhere.
The provisions represent “a quantum leap” in environmental justice legislation, said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
“We are in a position of moving away from a social injustice that’s long been embedded in this nation and in the state,” said McKeon, who sponsored the bill. “The protection of the environment and public health is essential to our prosperity.”
But industry leaders say the bill’s scope is too broad — it applies to more than half of New Jersey municipalities — and that the cumulative impact analysis will be difficult, if not impossible, to execute.
The state Chamber of Commerce predicted the law will drive employers and jobs out of the state and stifle economic opportunity. The Waste and Recycling Association and Chemistry Council said their facilities are good corporate neighbors. Lobbyists likened the law to redlining, a government housing segregation policy that discriminated against Black residents.
“This bill is redlining over half the state, at least by population, and saying you cannot put any of these facilities in there,” said Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “It’s going to harm manufacturing and a whole bunch of industries we want to promote, and at the end of the day it’s not going to improve these communities.”
Singleton, a sponsor of the bill, rejected the premise.
“There’s this idea that we cannot have environmental justice and positive growth and economic development that helps communities and generates jobs at the same time,” he said. “These two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Trade unions, too, lobbied against the bill, expressing concerns about government overreach and a possible chilling effect on private investment.
An amendment to the bill gives the DEP some leeway to issue permits if a new project would provide a “compelling public interest” to the community.
“No community in our state should bear the brunt of pollution that is created by industries that serve us all,” Murphy said in July.
Emblematic of these communities is the Ironbound section of Newark, a four-square-mile neighborhood in New Jersey’s largest city that includes an incinerator and more than 100 brownfields, potentially toxic parcels of land.
The neighborhood sits near the seaport and a contaminated stretch of the Passaic River, close to highways and Newark Liberty International Airport. Doremus Avenue, known as the Chemical Corridor, is home to a fat-rendering plant, a sewage treatment site, and a natural gas plant.
“You can’t imagine the amount of frustration. They keep putting stuff in Newark or Camden, and you can’t stop it even though there’s a lot of things there already,” said Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton.
“All these pollutants together have a detrimental impact on public health,” Sheats said. “You are making a scientific decision if you do nothing.”
The New Jersey DEP will need to write rules for implementing the bill’s requirements, a process that could take more than a year and will make or break the legislation’s effectiveness.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, recently relaunched the National Black Environmental Justice Network and wants to see New Jersey’s bill replicated elsewhere.
“I’m hoping to start a cascade of action in other states,” she said, “working to get a bill that’s as strong as this one is.”
An accurate U.S. Census count is fundamental to our democracy, but the Trump administration is once again standing in the way.
It recently announced plans to move the deadline for Census workers to conduct in-person interviews up by a full month, from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30. That would make it even harder for Census workers to complete this task on time and increase the risk of an undercount, especially among non-English speakers, immigrants and racial minorities.
About a third of U.S households have yet to fill out their questionnaire, a task made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. The accelerated pace will make it harder for Census takers to meet their goals.
“It’s going to be impossible to complete the count in time,” one Census Bureau employee told NPR. “I’m very fearful we’re going to have a massive undercount.”
Census data are used to allocate seats in the House of Representatives among the states, according to their population. The process determines how many Representatives each state will have for the next ten years. Census figures are also used to allocate federal funds.
The Constitution requires a count of everyone residing in the country, regardless of legal status. “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers,” declares the second section of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On July 21, Trump issued a memo stating, “It is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status.”
This unconstitutional claim will undermine the hard work of organizations and activists to build trust among undocumented immigrants, to ensure that they fill out their Census questionnaires. The Pew Research Center has calculated that removing undocumented immigrants would lead to California, Florida and Texas each losing one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, with Alabama, Minnesota and Ohio each keeping seats they would have otherwise lost.
Not only will this deprive representation from areas with large immigrant populations, it is a slap in the face to undocumented essential workers who put their safety at risk to keep the country going. The Migration Policy Institute reports that six million immigrants work on the front lines of coronavirus response. The Trump administration seeks to erase them.
There may be hope. Many groups have filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s memo as unconstitutional. The administration lost before the Supreme Court in its fight to wrongfully include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form and it can lose again.
America needs a fair, accurate count of the people who live here, including the undocumented. The Census must be non-political.
This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Greenlining Institute, and Movement Strategy Center are three Oakland-based social justice organizations strongly committed to tackling climate and environmental issues. Over the last six months, rather than pull them away from that mission, the global pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have created new opportunities for positive change. The Oaklandside spoke to three activists from these organizations about how they’re adapting their work, finding the silver linings, and using the moment to mobilize their communities in ways that didn’t seem possible before.
‘What has changed is the landscape of opportunity’
The Asian Pacific Environmental Network has been organizing with Asian communities in the East Bay, primarily Chinese immigrants in Oakland and Laotian refugees in Richmond, for more than 25 years. Since its inception, the organization has embraced a broad view of environmental justice, one that places economic and social equity at the center of community health and wellness. “We’ve always been organizing towards working-class Asian immigrant communities being fully resourced and having what they need,” said APEN communications director Marie Choi.
In the context of the global pandemic, APEN’s “long term goals haven’t changed,” said Choi. “What has changed is the landscape of opportunity.”
The organization wasted no time when the pandemic hit: On March 19, the day Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order, APEN was at Oakland City Hall, advocating successfully for the City Council to pass an emergency moratorium on tenant evictions. In the weeks that followed, the organization was active in pushing for the establishment of emergency paid sick leave for Oakland workers during the pandemic. More recently, APEN urged the Oakland City Council to close loopholes in its existing eviction moratorium and strengthen tenant protections even further.
“Before the pandemic, to imagine a moratorium on this scale would have been difficult, but now it has become so clear,” said Choi. “This is the best chance that all of us have to get through this.”
Nearly six months ago, in the pandemic’s early days, APEN organizers called on its members to assess immediate community needs, which led to the creation of an Emergency Community Stabilization Fund to support struggling families and business owners. “Our organizers made calls to hundreds of our members to check in, and it just became really clear that people were going to need financial support, ” said Choi. APEN’s network responded, and the donations, big and small, rolled in. Thus far, the organization has distributed over $60,000 raised by the fund.
APEN has been fighting to avoid economic displacement of working class immigrants In Chinatown, where it has a broad membership base, for years. In 2008, APEN was at the table during negotiations with the city and developers, calling for the inclusion of renter protections, inclusionary zoning, and environmental assessments for the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan. Despite APEN’s efforts and those of other community advocates, said Choi, the plan’s protections for longtime residents of the neighborhood lacked teeth.
“At the end of the day, when BART finalized that plan it included the things that we were pushing for as recommendations,” she said, “but not as enforced rules.” The lack of enforcement, said Choi, was akin to a rubber stamp for developers. “If you drive around Chinatown now, literally every single block has luxury development happening.”
More than a decade later, and in the midst of a health and economic crisis, APEN is finding renewed support and new allies in its fight to stave off gentrification downtown. APEN is working closely with the Black Arts Movement Business District to help inform a different city development project, the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, and to provide resources to anti-displacement projects centered around art. The collaboration with BAMBD, said Choi, is rooted in APEN’s belief that effective community organizing is intersectional.
“APEN was very much a part of the Black Lives Matter Movement efforts back in 2014 and physically hosted mobilization efforts that groups such as Asian for Black Lives were a part of,” said Choi. When the coalition to defund OPD took shape in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, APEN got involved immediately; the organization also helped to mobilize support for the successful movement to end school policing in Oakland Unified School District. Due to their many years of organizing and advocacy at the local and state level, said Choi, “we were already a part of a network of relationships built around trust.”
Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Oakland, The Greenlining Institute uses organizing, research, and policy to advance economic, racial, and environmental justice. When the pandemic spread and people began to realize the depth of its impact, the organization quickly understood it would need to redirect its energy to supporting the recovery effort.
“As an organization, we really had to reconsider how we would move forward knowing that a lot of the tools that we use for our advocacy were not going to be available to us, and reassess what current work would contribute to a just transition,” said Alvaro Sanchez, Greenlining Institute’s environmental equity director.
Greenlining joined APEN and more than 80 other health, environmental, and social justice organizations in developing a set of recommendations for achieving an equitable and just COVID-19 response and recovery. On June 10, the coalition sent their recommendations to California Governor Gavin Newsom and members of the Governor’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery.
Their plan details three main strategies, the first of which is to “make equity real” in the state’s response effort, by protecting voting and other forms of civic engagement, making sure data stays publicly available, and addressing racial disparities during the pandemic. The second calls for the state to invest money where it’s needed most: “We are encouraging the state of California to make strategic investments in a Green Stimulus,” said Sanchez, “and prioritize investments that focus on our public health crisis, climate crisis and our economic crisis.” The final strategy outlines an economic recovery plan centered on job training, support for small local businesses, housing assistance, and support for those lacking technology.
“COVID-19 has really demonstrated that the issues that make our communities unhealthy have never been addressed, and until we address those root causes—whether it’s through another pandemic or climate change—our communities will always be impacted the most because we are at such a severe disadvantage.”
Sanchez, who comes from a family of immigrants, has had to grapple with the reality that his loved ones are more at risk of falling sick with COVID-19, simply because of who they are.
“My family members in L.A.—because of immigration policy, because of where they live, because of the need to have to work—currently have to continue to expose themselves to the virus by having to go to work and live in crowded housing,” he said. “Many cannot access federal and state unemployment insurance and there is fear about getting tested. No one wants to possibly alert immigration of their status.”
With the emergence of the pandemic and the urgency now surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, said Sanchez, Greenlining is “doubling down on our unapologetic approach to race being a factor in the way we address these policy issues,” and seizing the opportunity “to make real transformative change.”
For the past year and a half, he said, Greenlining has been exploring what it means to be anti-racist. That included a group trip to Montgomery, Alabama, one of the epicenters of the Civil Rights Movement, which Sanchez described as “a transformative experience—to be with your entire staff and learn that history together.”
The current protest movement against anti-Black racism is encouraging Greenlining to ground its work even more firmly in its mission. “We have been using this moment to be more explicit about who we are and what we do,” said Sanchez. “Just the amount of organizations, individuals, and entities that are committed to this type of work here in the Bay is unmatched. What we, as racial justice organizations, need for the long term fight is just an incredible amount of solidarity.”
‘We’ve been here before’
The Oakland-based Movement Strategy Center works with organizations in the Bay Area and nationally to create transformational change, with programs focused on climate justice, youth and intergenerational organizing, gender identity, and local economies. After the onset of the pandemic, one of the first things MSC did was organize a relief fund to provide its many grassroots partners, individual contractors, and allies with resources needed to continue their social justice work during the economic shutdown.
“We were able to set up a contract to support the utility justice Reclaim Our Power campaign, which Movement Generation and Local Clean Energy Alliance are leading,” said Corrine Van Hook-Turner, MSC’s director of climate innovation. “This will allow them to continue the work of transforming our energy system and continue the fight with PG&E.”
In addition to the organization’s direct financial support, MSC staff were allowed to donate their personal sick leave to any of the organization’s fiscally sponsored projects.
“There were individual movements that we were connected to personally as staff,” said Van Hook-Turner. She described one MSC colleague who began organizing when she learned that a local motel had opened up as a shelter for unhoused people. “She made sure that the motel had basic needs like food, and resources, and was even able to start a donation fund to further support as well as figure out a way to transport folks to the motel.”
Van Hook-Turner said MSC is well positioned to observe the economic and health disparities being laid bare by the pandemic. “We saw the impact here in the Bay Area but because we do our work nationally, a lot of this was happening on similar scales all around the country.” The pandemic, she said, is exposing “the insufficiency of our economic and ecological systems that illustrate the damaged relationship with our planet.”
In May, the organization hosted a virtual Afro-Indigenous gathering, Wawa-Aba, to share “earth-based regeneration strategies,” urban gardening skills, and the use of plants and herbs to promote regeneration and spiritual grounding. The event featured a Black herbalist who spoke about resilience and how it can be cultivated with specific foods and herbal medicines. The event brought over 200 attendees from all over the country.
Most recently, the Movement Strategy Center launched the Young Black Climate Leaders Program. The project will support the work of five youth leaders in collaboration with a sponsoring organization, for 1-2 years as they plan and design Afrofuturist projects and campaigns focused on climate and other issues.
Director Van Hook-Turner said the program has an open-minded design and “will support a ‘dream it, create it, live it’ sense—a Wakanda-like methodology.” Youth will govern the program and shape it together, learn organizing skills, and engage in their own nomination process to recruit 20 other young people to further the work they begin.
“When the pandemic hit, there was a further sense of synchronicity, urgency, and alignment to launch,” said Director Van Hook-Turner. “The pandemic just reminds us that we’ve been here before and it is crucial that we are accelerating the rate at which we make a just transition, and make sure that Black and Indigenous people of color are at the center of leading this.”
Quicken Loans’ parent company, Rocket Companies, was expected to begin the first day of trading connected to its initial public offering (IPO), The Greenlining Institute said on Wednesday.
The company, which bills itself as the world’s largest mortgage lender, seeks to raise as much as $3.8 billion and an overall net profit of $2 billion in net profit from the IPO.
In 2019, Quicken Loans originated 89,428 loans in California for an overall profit of over $36 billion.
As a leader in the mortgage lending industry and a direct beneficiary of policies set by the Federal Reserve and Federal Housing Administration, Quicken Loans has an opportunity to use the massive capital infusion from its IPO to help support struggling communities where it does business.
California, where Quicken is the second-largest home mortgage originator, has one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the United States. communities of color, which make up more than 60% of the state, are disproportionately impacted by California’s housing crisis and still face the lingering impact of the 2008 mortgage meltdown.
“Online lenders like Quicken Loans can help eliminate the effects of redlining and help Black and Brown families build generational wealth,” said Greenlining Institute Technology Equity Director Paul Goodman. “We look forward to Quicken Loans, and other FinTech lenders, make commitments to help households of color by instituting equitable lending policies.” .”
“Owning a home is the primary way in which most Americans build wealth, yet what was once a modest goal is out of reach for most people of color,” said Greenlining Institute Economic Equity Director Adam Briones.
“Here in California, only 35% of African Americans and 42% of Latinos own their own homes, which directly impacts their ability to build create intergenerational assets for their families. Unfortunately, this only compounds what is already a severe racial wealth gap where Black and Latinx families have only $0.10 for every $1 of wealth held by White families,” Briones said.
As the state faces one of the worst economic crises in a decade due to COVID-19, and the racial wealth gap only continues to grow, it’s more important than ever that bank and non-bank lenders, such as Quicken Loans, reinvest in the communities that help drive their bottom line, Briones said.
President Trump is attacking Democrats on a new front: suburbia.
“They want to eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs,” Trump said on a July campaign call.
While it’s unclear whether Trump’s veiled appeal to racial anxieties will help his poll numbers, the focus on single-family homes has touched on a contentious debate in a growing number of communities. Around the country, cities and states are grappling with how zoning rules have deeply codified racial inequity and exacerbated climate change.
Local codes have ensured that suburban homes with a two-car garage dominate the American landscape, but those rules originally were often directly linked to racial discrimination. Single-family zoning was passed in some cities to ensure racial segregation. The deeds of some houses specified that only white buyers could purchase them.
As sprawl became the default, it increased the reliance on cars. Today, super-commuters who live hours from their jobs are driving up carbon emissions. Experts say tackling climate change will mean reshaping neighborhoods with a new focus on public transit, biking and walkability.
Looking to address the legacy of racism and the threat of climate change, some communities are remaking their zoning laws. Minneapolis and Oregon recently passed new “upzoning” codes allowing duplexes or triplexes in areas once zoned as single-family and encouraging denser development around transit and jobs.
But in California, resistance to denser zoning has been fierce. After failing to pass measures three times, lawmakers are now making a fourth attempt to tackle zoning in a state with both a severe housing crisis and an ambitious climate goal.
“I think the lesson for the rest of the country is that even in California’s liberal suburban enclaves with Black Lives Matter signs everywhere, residents and local elected officials are still hostile to opening their communities up to housing that would bring people with diverse backgrounds and incomes,” says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at University of California, Berkeley’s law school.
NIMBY vs. YIMBY
In California, attempts to overhaul single-family zoning have fallen short. Often it’s because they failed to win over Democrats, even those who supported the state’s groundbreaking goals for boosting renewable energy and cutting carbon emissions.
“I think climate change is one of the real serious issues that we have to deal with,” says Susan Kirsch, a community organizer in Mill Valley, Calif. “But I don’t think we need to be forcing draconian measures, taking away local control and local preferences, to be able to solve that problem.”
In Kirsch’s driveway, an electric Toyota Prius is plugged into a charger. Solar panels cover her roof. Single-family homes like hers make up much of Mill Valley, a city located about half an hour north of San Francisco, where the median price is about $1.5 million.
“There’s a lot of people who are master gardeners and people committed to the environment and are taking care of the environment,” she says. “A birthplace for recycling and eliminating plastic straws.”
Kirsch’s neighborhood is exactly the kind targeted for zoning change. She lives in a walkable area within a quarter-mile of a bus stop and close to a bank and grocery store. Right now, city zoning only allows single-family homes there.
In a state bill proposed last year, single-family zoning in places such as Mill Valley would be opened up to duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes. In larger counties, areas within a quarter-mile of transit and jobs would have no limit on the number of units in the hope of boosting the housing supply and encouraging public transit use. It was lawmakers’ second attempt after a previous bill failed.
“Knowing that any of the neighbors could do that, there’s a sense of the incredible impact of that kind of change in this community,” Kirsch says.
So Kirsch helped organize efforts to defeat the bills, which earned her the label NIMBY, aka “not in my backyard.”
“Actually, I keep trying to change the label to be a bit of a badge of honor in terms of stewardship,” she says.
In January, lawmakers debated on the floor of the state Senate. Some Democrats opposed the bill over concerns about gentrification and affordable housing. But other Democrats saw it as an attack against single-family homes and local control. The bill failed by three votes.
“The climate discussion did get attention, but not as much as it deserved,” says state Sen. Scott Wiener, who introduced the bill. “Leaving the cities to their own devices hasn’t worked. They’ve given us a 3.5 million home shortage and so we need to rebalance the state vs. local decision-making here.”
Driving up emissions
Overall, carbon emissions are declining in California, largely thanks to the rise of renewable energy such as solar power. But emissions from transportation are still going up, a clear obstacle to the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.
“If you really want to address the climate problem, we’re going to need our neighborhoods to be built in a different way,” says Elkind. “We just simply cannot meet our near-term and certainly our long-term climate goals unless we address the land use question.”
Studies show that residents of large cities have lower carbon footprints, generally. Residents in suburbs near a large city can have 50% higher transportation emissions than city residents.
Elkind sees a disconnect in California. Cities may consider themselves environmentally progressive, but their zoning bans duplexes or triplexes in up to 98% of residential areas. (See how various Bay Area cities are zoned in these UC Berkeley maps).
“Those people who would have lived in that home are not just going to evaporate from Earth,” he says. “They’re just going to choose a different home. And for all the electric miles you’re putting on your Toyota Prius or whatever it is, you’re now forcing those residents to have to drive 30, 40, 50 miles in a gas vehicle.”
Legacy of discrimination
What California hasn’t done, other places have. Last year, Oregon passed a law to allow higher density housing statewide.
Before that, prior to the death of George Floyd and racial justice protests, Minneapolis was the first major city to tackle single-family zoning. (Some cities have also passed accessory dwelling unit rules to encourage building “granny flats” in backyards.)
The new zoning rules in Minneapolis allow duplexes and triplexes in areas once limited to single-family homes. Zoning for larger residential buildings is concentrated around public transit and walkable neighborhoods.
“This was a very controversial planning process,” says Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council. “We had competing lawn signs messages. We had lots of media coverage.”
The city recognized that single-family zoning was preserving land use patterns with a discriminatory past. Some homes in single-family neighborhoods once had racial covenants in their deeds, which specified that only white residents could buy the property.
African American residents were displaced into neighborhoods that were then subject to “redlining.” That meant banks often wouldn’t provide mortgages to residents there, preventing Black communities from building intergenerational wealth through homeownership.
“The conditions that people are living with today in communities of color, those were locked in by a housing policy and what it locked in, usually, is poverty and pollution,” says Alvaro Sanchez, director of environmental equity with the Greenlining Institute, a racial and economic justice group in Oakland, Calif.
Many communities of color bear a greater burden of pollution because they’re located next to freeways or heavy industry. Green spaces and parks are often absent or neglected, causing those neighborhoods to experience even hotter temperatures during heat waves. Sanchez says racial discrimination is still an essential problem in housing policy, but often, it’s not discussed openly.
“I think that there’s undertones in, well, we don’t want our neighborhoods to change,” says Sanchez. “And to me, I’m left with a question mark. What’s the kind of change you don’t want to come to your neighborhood? What’s the expectation that if you densify, a certain demographic is going to come to your neighborhood?”
Eliminating single-family zoning alone won’t automatically lead to greater racial equity, he says. Increasing development runs the risk of gentrification and displacement, so housing justice advocates say there needs to be strong affordable housing policies and tenant protections, as well as ensuring that communities of color are directly part of the planning process.
“How we make these decisions is really key,” says Tiffany Eng of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “We have to ask ourselves who is benefiting from this housing? Who is losing? And what communities are centered?”
One of the toughest things in the Minneapolis debate, Bender says, was helping residents picture how their neighborhoods could change. Denser zoning challenges the American ideal of a big suburban home.
Bender says: “When you start to take on those kinds of ingrained assumptions that somehow that’s better, that’s where we really start to open up our minds to the possibility that our city can evolve to fit future needs of all of our residents.”
In July, a climate task force convened by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden embraced a 2030 goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from all new buildings.
The plan followed a wave of climate activism targeting buildings, which are often the biggest source of urban emissions as they draw electricity from the grid and guzzle natural gas for heat. Dozens of cities in California and Massachusetts have sought to restrict the use of gas in new structures, provoking pushback by oil and gas associations, utilities, and other groups.
But efficiency researchers say activists’ favored alternative to natural gas — electric heat — is still a costlier option for consumers. Mass adoption of electric heating could overload the grid without significant infrastructure upgrades, other analysts warn. And an all-electric push would drag gas utilities into an existential fight, experts say, creating risks to ratepayers and company workforces.
“This goes to the core of utilities’ business models,” said Sue Coakley, executive director of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP), which backs an electric transition.
Regulators need to examine how to wind down utilities’ gas businesses while providing a future for the companies, she said.
“Utilities are going to say, ‘Keep us financially whole and give us a way forward.’ That’s a reasonable thing to say,” Coakley said.
Meanwhile, building electrification may hinge on a single, silver bullet replacement for fossil fuel heat — electric heat pumps — that can pose technical challenges, analysts say.
“If you’re going to electrify the heating in a building, the logical way to do it is with a heat pump. There aren’t many other options,” said Ron Domitrovic, a program manager in the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI) energy utilization group.
In the Northeast, the stakes are high for determining whether heat pumps can replace fossil fuels. Every New England state, plus New York and New Jersey, has laws requiring 80% emissions reductions by 2050. And the region’s buildings are by far the nation’s most dependent on gas for heating.
“Buildings are really one of our hardest challenges,” said Coakley of NEEP.
But federal and nonprofit electrification researchers see looming problems for the region.
For one, equipping a building with heat pumps can add complex design hurdles, noted Domitrovic of EPRI.
Unlike gas boilers, which burn fuel to create warmth, heat pumps simply transfer outside warmth into a building. By flipping a switch, they can also act as air conditioners.
In cold climates, though, heating demand is often higher than cooling demand. If a heat pump is doing both jobs, it might require a much bigger installation — for heat — than would be otherwise necessary for cooling.
“You had one size for an air conditioner, but if you needed heating, you might need to double the size. Does that mean double the cost? Perhaps,” Domitrovic said.
In general, using the technology for space heating in cold climates would be more expensive for homeowners and landlords than using a gas boiler, said Domitrovic. When temperatures dip below freezing, heat pumps become less energy-efficient, and the cost of running them grows.
It’s one reason natural gas advocates have defended continued use of the fuel, while promoting biofuels as an eventual substitute.
Renewable natural gas or biomethane — a low-carbon fuel produced from manure, food waste and other sources — could prove cheaper than electric heat if it were scaled up and mixed with regular natural gas in existing pipelines, found a study backed by the American Gas Foundation last year.
Heat pump advocates have contested those findings, pointing to a report commissioned by the California Energy Commission that concluded building electrification was the “least-cost” option for decarbonization. They add that using methane as a feedstock, as RNG does, would also pose risks of climate-threatening leaks.
But it may be too early to pick a single winner for decarbonized heat, said Jürgen Weiss, a partner at consultancy the Brattle Group and a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, who has studied decarbonization pathways for the state of Rhode Island.
“There’s a lot of open questions” about cost, he noted. “We’re more likely to make progress if we push on parallel fronts.”
‘Not your daddy’s heat pump’
Advocates and manufacturers point out that the technology is already in widespread use across the southern U.S., where 63% of new single-family homes came equipped with heat pumps in 2017. Many new models provide reliable warmth at temperatures well below freezing, they say.
“The unfortunate thing is, heat pumps share a name with a technology that just didn’t heat below 40 degrees in the not-too-distant past. This is an entirely different technology today,” said Eric Dubin, senior director for utilities and performance construction at Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC, the U.S. arm of the Japanese company that focuses on heat pumps.
“The ability to operate at low temperatures has completely changed, to where you can use this product in Canada and the northern U.S.,” he added. “It’s not your daddy’s heat pump.”
Environmental justice groups are approaching the issue with caution, wary of higher bills for low-income residents in vulnerable communities.
“If you’re talking about an increase in energy bills, none of our members can afford that,” said Carmelita Miller, legal counsel for energy equity at the California-based Greenlining Institute.
Landlords who ditch gas for electric heat, stoves or dryers might pass along the cost to renters, Miller’s group wrote in a report last year. Even people who own their homes may not be able to afford repairs to the house’s envelope and insulation — considered prerequisites for fuel switching. A flight of wealthy homeowners from the gas system could raise rates for everyone else, the report found.
“We could also inadvertently be hurting our community members” if building electrification policies aren’t designed with significant input from “front-line” communities, said Miller.
But buildings are also an important source of air pollution. Fossil fuels burned in residential and commercial buildings contributed to 28,200 premature deaths in the U.S. in 2018, according to a February study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was published in the journal Nature (E&E News PM, Feb. 12). And there are few signs that carbon capture systems are emerging in buildings.
“We can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is going to cause an energy bill hike, so we should just leave our communities in pollution,'” said Miller. “We can’t accept the status quo.”
Groups like hers have begun to contemplate which policies could strike a balance.
“I think all of the clean energy advocates are, in one form or another, learning what [building electrification] is truly going to mean,” Miller added.
Echoes of fracking fights
After Biden’s climate task force recommended a zero-emissions mandate for new buildings, the former vice president embraced a scaled-back version: His latest climate plan would only apply to new commercial buildings.
The plan emphasizes building upgrades rather than fuel switching, although it does call for “direct cash rebates and low-cost financing” for people who electrify home appliances.
Any national-level mandate would elevate an idea that has already taken root in California, where the state Energy Commission is contemplating an all-electric requirement for new buildings.
Last summer, Berkeley, Calif., prohibited new buildings from having natural gas pipes for heat, water and cooking. The town simultaneously mandated they be wired to handle electric heat pumps and stoves.
Over 50 California cities and counties have since proposed similar ordinances. State energy officials have signed off on them, since California’s building code allows cities to set stricter energy standards than those imposed by the state.
That’s not the case in Massachusetts, where the first gas ban on the East Coast was shot down last month by the state attorney general’s office (Energywire, July 24).
Legislators in at least four other states have reacted swiftly to head off the prospect of municipal gas bans, passing laws that prohibit such restrictions.
California cities have faced their own headwinds enacting bans. Berkeley has been sued by the state restaurant association — a group backed in part by gas utilities — saying chefs depend on “the intense heat” provided by a natural gas flame.
This spring, a union representing employees of Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), the nation’s largest gas distributor, managed to postpone a vote over a gas ban in San Luis Obispo by threatening to bus in attendees without observing social distancing, the Los Angeles Timesreported.
Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program, said recent battles over gas bans remind her of the conflicts over hydraulic fracturing, in which local and state officials vied for the upper hand in deciding where drillers should be allowed to operate.
“All of that has come roaring back with these different natural gas ordinances,” she said.
Utility paradigm shift
Electrification advocates say they expect the clashes in California to be the opening salvo of what will become a nationwide battle, with potential to pit utilities against one another.
Builders, restaurateurs and other groups are likely to resist steps to electrify heat or stoves, according to advocates, but power and gas companies will be at the center of any policy fights.
Gas distributors might be more inclined to take a page from SoCalGas’ playbook, while electric utilities would likely welcome the transition, said Jenna Tatum, director of the Building Electrification Initiative, which advises city sustainability officials.
Utilities that service both gas and electricity, meanwhile, “are going to be all over the map in terms of their response” to electrification policy, Tatum predicted. “They’re going to have to make a lot of changes, but it’s possible for them to shift their business model.”
Regulators in the Northeast and elsewhere are steering their states toward an electric transition, creating rebates for homeowners who buy heat pumps to replace gas or propane. In some cases, heat pump installers and vendors can claim rebates as well, noted the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in a June report.
Officials in California and New York are also reviewing how to square their climate goals, which involve full decarbonization across the energy sector, with the use of natural gas. Massachusetts’ attorney general has similarly asked regulators there to investigate the future of gas infrastructure.
Some electrification advocates say state regulators must take aggressive action to reshape how many gas utilities do business.
Coakley of NEEP noted that on a kilowatt-hour basis, gas tends to be about a third the cost of electricity, citing estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That could keep heat pumps at a competitive disadvantage, even though they often use energy more efficiently than gas, said Coakley, who is pushing policymakers to correct that market imbalance.
“There’s a lot of tools we can bring to a solution,” she said. “But it’s pretty clear: We can’t keep using natural gas the way we’ve been using it.”