Today pandemic, tomorrow climate change: How three Oakland orgs are connecting the dots

By Iris Crawford
The Oaklandside

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 IPO Could Help Fight California’s Homeownership Crisis

By The Greenlining Institute
Post News Group

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.

Why Sprawl Could Be The Next Big Climate Change Battle

By Lauren Sommer
Wisconsin Public Radio

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.


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.

This summer, legislators are making a fourth attempt with a new package of housing bills.

“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.”

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As Natural Gas Bans Go National, Can Cities Fill the Gap?

By David Iaconangelo
E&E News

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 Times reported.

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.”

Black MTS Riders Cited Disproportionately

By Lisa Halverstadt and Kate Nucci
Voice of San Diego

Black Metropolitan Transit System riders received nearly a third of the quality of life citations the agency’s officers wrote last year but made up less than 15 percent of the system’s ridership.

A Voice of San Diego analysis of more than 77,600 MTS citations revealed Black riders – who make up 12 to 14 percent of MTS ridership, according to surveys – received 32 percent of tickets written for violations such as failing to pay a trolley fare or to follow MTS officers’ orders.

Black riders were also overrepresented among riders who received at least 30 MTS citations last year. VOSD’s analysis showed 99 of the 232 riders who were ticketed more than two dozen times were Black. Those Black riders collectively received more than 8,500 citations.

Activists have for years raised concerns about MTS’s aggressive enforcement and its impact on low-income people of color who rely on the transit system as the agency has cracked down on fare and other quality of life violations. Last year, MTS wrote more than 66,000 tickets for fare evasion alone.

MTS officials say they are pursuing a comprehensive analysis of the agency’s enforcement approach they hope will also help MTS better understand and address racial disparities, and in September will roll out a fare evasion diversion program to lessen the burden of tickets for failure to pay a $2.50 fare. MTS also reports it has relaxed enforcement of both fare evasion and quality of life violations this year.

“All of this has been enacted in 2020 due in part to the recognition that MTS enforcement policies may have had a disparate impact on our riders,” MTS spokesman Rob Schupp wrote in an email to VOSD.

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs MTS’s Public Security Committee, said the volume of MTS enforcement affecting Black riders underscores the need for further reform and cultural shifts at the agency – and in the community.

“This is why we’re pushing for lower [fare evasion] fees and a way to get around the effect the citations can have, but ultimately, in every conversation I have about profiling, it really comes back to the culture and many San Diegans and Americans are conditioned to believe that Black people are inherently dangerous and we just get treated differently even in these situations,” said Montgomery, who is Black.

The disparate impact of enforcement on Black MTS riders isn’t unprecedented.

An analysis of Bay Area Rapid Transit enforcement last year found Black riders received more than 45 percent of fare citations despite making up just 10 percent of the agency’s ridership. The Seattle Times also revealed that 22 percent of Sound Transit riders cited for fare violations were Black though they make up just 9 percent of riders. And last year, VOSD teamed with UC San Diego Extension Center for Research on a review of traffic stops by San Diego police and San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies and found Black San Diegans were searched more than any other race.

“We’re seeing the exact same parallels with policing on the streets and policing in transit in terms of who is stopped and hounded,” said Hana Creger of Oakland-based Greenlining Institute, which focuses on racial and economic justice.

Police reform advocate Tasha Williamson, who has for years spoken out against MTS’s enforcement posture, agreed.

“In every system, we’re disproportionately impacted and here you see that yet again, we have a system where we are being disproportionately impacted,” said Williamson, who is Black.

MTS has said its fare enforcement process is designed to avoid bias. MTS code compliance inspectors board the trolley armed with handheld devices to check fares and announce that riders should pull out their passes.

“In 2019, MTS checked all people riding the trolley and during special enforcement details, all people on board trolleys and on stations’ platforms,” Schupp said.

One morning earlier this month, MTS code compliance inspector Xavier Herrera did just that as he walked onto the Green Line at the Imperial Avenue station.

“Good morning, everybody,” Herrera said. “Have your ticket passes, please.”

Herrera then approached every rider in the sparsely populated trolley as contract security officer Jose Morales looked on. All riders were able to show they had paid.

Herrera later said the process allows officers to avoid targeting specific riders.

Yet officers have the discretion to decide who receives a ticket or a warning.

Herrera said MTS officers haven’t been as quick to write citations in 2020 as riders grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s more about education now, trying to help the public,” Herrera said.

That’s a departure from the aggressive approach MTS has taken in recent years. Last year, MTS gave out more than four times as many citations as it did in 2015 and the agency’s fare evasion enforcement has eclipsed that of other transit agencies, including those with more riders.

As that enforcement increased, some riders have noticed disparities.

Mike Woods, 55, said MTS officers seem particularly focused on Black and homeless people on and near the trolley. Woods, a passholder who is Black and has lived on the street for years, said he has often noticed MTS officers question those riders before they address others.

“They rush to them first,” Woods said. “last They’re ready to give the African American people tickets first.”

Woods said he recently looked on as an MTS officer waved off a white rider in a military uniform who was preparing to retrieve his pass during a fare check before asking to see Woods’ pass.

San Diego State associate professor Megan Welsh, who has studied racial disparities in San Diego police traffic stop data and officers’ perceptions about profiling, said MTS officers and leaders’ discretionary decisions about how to carry out enforcement – from the timing of enforcement efforts to who is approached first about potential violations – likely play a significant role in who is being cited. She said MTS’s focus on low-level quality of life and fare violations is also significant.

An MTS customer satisfaction survey conducted last year revealed 41 percent of the 1,560 respondents had a household income of less than $15,000, up from 36 percent two years earlier.

“This is a way we are punishing the poorest in our society. We’re just finding another form of surveillance to do that,” Welsh said. “It’s a poor tax.”

Welsh and David Loy, legal director at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, argued that disparities in MTS’s enforcement numbers point to the need for an overhaul to the agency’s approach and for more tools to serve rather than crack down on riders.

Loy urged MTS to move to decriminalize violations such as fare evasion, a move Montgomery has also advocated.

“I encourage the board to move as quickly as it possibly can on that,” Loy said. “This is a perfect example of the kind of overcriminalization in the law that gives the police excessive power to police communities, and especially to police communities of color.”

Schupp said MTS has been working to try to give officers more options to help rather than simply ticket low-income riders. For example, the agency had been in talks with homeless-serving nonprofit Alpha Project about locating a shelter on its property before the coronavirus pandemic and has also been exploring the creation of a homeless outreach team.

MTS also recently said that it would bolster de-escalation and cultural diversity training for both its officers and Allied Universal contract security officers starting this month. It has also made training on preventing bias in policing a requirement for contract employees.

Montgomery pledged to rally for more changes as chair of the committee charged with monitoring MTS enforcement.

“Acknowledgement is first,” Montgomery said. “I am committed to changing policies that, even if they appear fair, result in disparate treatment just across the board.”

Is President Trump Attempting Genocide on African Americans?

By Stacy M. Brown
Washington Informer

President Donald Trump announced what he called a top to bottom overhaul of the regulations that govern one of the nation’s most significant environmental laws. Trump said he wants to speed up approval for major projects like pipelines and highways. The NAACP and others said the move could sideline the concerns of poor and minority communities impacted by those projects and discount their impact on climate change.

A report from the NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and the National Medical Association found that Black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in “fence-line communities” that border oil and gas refineries. Officials Climate Power 2020 said that worsens when communities are robbed of the right to protest pipelines, refineries, or chemical plants displacing their homes.

“Not only will Trump’s attack be a big win for oil and gas CEOs, but it will silence communities of color, who are most impacted by toxic pollution and have historically been ignored in favor of major polluting projects,” Climate Power 2020 officials noted in a news release.

“Removing these protections is just the latest example of Trump’s corrupt attacks on communities of color in the United States. Black and Brown America are suffering under the weight of Trump’s incompetence on health care, discriminatory housing policies, police brutality, and climate injustice,” the statement continued.

“Eliminating environmental reviews is just the latest, devastating, example of Trump prioritizing the wants of Big Oil over the right to clean air and clean water for Americans of color”

Climate Power 2020, a campaign dedicated to changing the politics of climate in 2020, has highlighted many incidents of what they said are Trump’s environmental assaults on communities of color. They said the president advanced a rule that would stop communities of color from having any say on federal projects that would bring pollution and chemicals to their neighborhoods Further, Trump gave his “chemical cronies and open license to pollute in Black and Brown towns,” using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to waive environmental rules that directly connect to air quality and respiratory health, Climate Power 2020 officials stated.

In Houston’s most heavily industrialized areas, air pollutants surged as much as 62 percent after Trump’s rollback, according to a Texas A&M analysis of air monitoring stations. Scientists have warned that soot pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and can cause cancer, heart disease, and asthma, killing Black children at ten times the rate as white children. Soot in the air was linked to higher death rates from COVID-19 around the same time that Black Americans were dying at three times the rate as whites from the disease, Climate Power 2020 officials noted. Still, Trump overruled calls from scientists to set tighter air quality standards on soot pollution after disbanding the scientists advising him on the issue.

Environmental activists also noted that Trump’s fight with California is killing people of color in that car exhaust counts as another significant source of the soot pollution that kills Black and Brown people. One study found that communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66% more air pollution just from car exhaust than white residents – exposure made worse when Trump insisted on rolling back clean cars standards.

“It’s well-documented that communities of color often live with the worst pollution problems, often as a lingering result of being redlined into neighborhoods near industrial facilities and other sources of toxic pollution, and there’s good reason to think this is making the impact of COVID-19 worse,” said Bruce Mirken of The Greenlining Institute.

“These communities need more control over their future and the environment they live in, not less,” Mirken demanded.

The Greenlining Institute Mourns the Passing of Co-Founder Bob Gnaizda

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

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – It is with profound sadness that The Greenlining Institute announces that Robert (Bob) Gnaizda, one of the organization’s co-founders and a ferocious advocate for racial and economic justice, passed away on Saturday. On behalf of our Board of Directors, employees, and coalition partners we extend our deepest sympathies to Bob’s family during this difficult time.

“Since the mid-1970’s Bob was a tireless leader who created community around a simple, shared and powerful vision,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “To bring together grassroots community leaders from the African American, Asian American, Latino and disabled communities to both fight institutionalized discrimination and redlining and to proactively bring investments and opportunity into these communities. Bob was fearless. He and John Gamboa forced big banks and other institutions to listen, and brought billions of dollars in investment into communities that had been redlined.”

“Before racial and economic justice was a popular hashtag, Bob was bold enough to say what others wouldn’t and brave enough to do what most wouldn’t,” said Greenlining Board Co-Chair Tunua Thrash-Ntuk. “He wielded a pen and paper that was guided by his vast and unrivaled knowledge of our national economic and banking system. Coupled by his love of people, Bob never shrank in the face of the racial justice fight against outsized circumstance — be it a financially endowed CEO, a Federal Reserve Chairman or a powerful member of Congress or the Cabinet. His uncanny knack for strategy yielded Greenlining and the communities it serves countless wins that bent the arc of justice toward righteousness.”

A community luminary and longtime civil rights advocate, Gnaizda was one of the key leaders who put together the multi-ethnic racial and economic justice coalition that eventually became The Greenlining Institute in 1993. At first, he and fellow co-founder John Gamboa were the organization’s sole staff members, formulating a strategy that used the Community Reinvestment Act to push banks to lend and invest in long-redlined communities of color. His warnings about the growth of predatory lending in the early 2000s led to him being interviewed in the award-winning documentary about the 2008 crash, “Inside Job.”

“Bob is one of the most underappreciated civil rights leaders of our time because he never cared about being honored or celebrated, he cared about the work,” John Gamboa said.

“Bob Gnaizda was a social justice creative genius,” said Orson Aguilar, who led Greenlining after Gnaizda and Gamboa retired. “He mixed his vast legal skills with a creative organizing approach that often mixed baseball statistics with current and historic events. He always sought to uplift leaders of color and never backed away from talking about race. Nobody has worked harder than Bob to build a long-lasting, multi-ethnic coalition. Bob had an enormous spirit that will leave a long-lasting impact on all of us who were fortunate to have worked alongside him in our march towards social and racial justice.”

“Bob was a brilliant lawyer, advocate and comrade for social and economic equity for, with and in our communities,” said Ortensia Lopez, another co-founder and longtime Greenlining Institute board member. “Bob was always ahead of his times and always had great insights and strategies to address our issues. I am honored, privileged and thankful to have worked with him on so many issues.”

A private funeral for Robert Gnaizda will take place in Petaluma on Saturday, July 18, 2020. Plans for a public online memorial are being developed and will be announced later.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute


Equitable Building Electrification: Energizing Community Needs

By Carmelita Miller
Facilities Management Journal

Building electrification is coming. As nations around the world grapple with climate change and carbon emission reductions, we see increasing recognition from governments and communities alike that the buildings where we live, work, and play represent a major part of the problem–and, therefore, the potential solution. Many localities are already taking steps to encourage switching from gas to clean, efficient, electric appliances for heating and cooking, particularly in new construction.

Transitioning from gas appliances and systems to electric options signals a significant change for the entire buildings sector. It’s critical that we get this right, because ultimately this will affect all communities and all types of facilities, from single-family homes to large apartment and office complexes, factories, hospitals, campuses and more. Facilities managers need to understand the ramifications of this transition and can play an important role in helping to guide it in a way that benefits all.

The Greenlining Institute examined the issues around electrification for our recent report, Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities. We found that in California, where we’re based the gas used in our buildings produces about one quarter of the state’s total CO2 emissions. As a result, over 50 U.S. localities from Maine to Seattle have either adopted or begun considering measures to spur a switch from gas to electricity, and that number continues to grow. According to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, New York City has identified 175,000 buildings as prime candidates to switch to electric heating, and is working with its electric and gas utility, Consolidated Edison, along with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Mitsubishi Electric to start making it happen.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, other governments continue to set ambitious climate and CO2 reduction goals: For instance, the World Resources Institute reports that 46 countries around the globe have already offered specific policies to decarbonize buildings. Meanwhile, California is aiming for an entirely carbon neutral economy, and has committed to a completely carbon-free electric grid by 2045, maximizing the climate gains from building electrification.

Climate and Health Benefits of Electrification

Successful reduction of carbon and air pollution requires shifting towards clean electricity in businesses and homes — single-family houses and large apartment complexes alike. This shift presents the opportunity to achieve multiple objectives: cleaning the aging electric grid, increasing our buildings’ energy performance, and creating policies that align carbon reduction solutions with racial equity outcomes to help the most polluted and underinvested communities.

Today’s highly efficient electric heating technologies offer a cost-effective way to reduce pollution from the buildings sector. For example, using clean electricity in buildings, instead of gas, will reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 31 and 73 percent, depending on the size of the solar array and climate zone.

Combining a cleaner source of electricity with energy efficient heat pump technologies can unlock further cost savings and reduced bills. Electric heat and hot water technologies can save households and commercial facilities in energy costs over the life of the equipment, if installed as part of an overall energy efficiency retrofit and consumers take advantage of policies to access off-peak energy pricing. Over the life of a major facility, this can result in significant cost savings. Forgoing the costs to build, connect, and install gas lines and infrastructure in the first place can also reduce the cost of new construction.

Moving away from gas won’t just help reduce carbon emissions. It will also eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution. Burning gas releases nitrogen oxides and harmful

particulate matter. Prolonged exposure to these combustion byproducts can have serious long-term health impacts, especially for children and the elderly, such as triggering asthma attacks, decreasing overall lung function, and increasing chances of serious respiratory illness. This can be a particular concern for schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities and other facilities where vulnerable individuals may gather.

Environmental and Social Justice Communities

The transition away from gas will impact individuals and communities differently, depending on their situation. Renters, for example, will face different issues — and will tend to have less control — than homeowners or building owners. Clean energy movements of the past, including rooftop solar and energy efficiency, have primarily benefited those on the higher end of the income scale compared to those on the lower end, who face compounding barriers to access. Over time, continued reliance upon market-driven, trickle-down solutions that largely fail to deliver for underresourced communities has frayed trust between policymakers and the communities still waiting for their share of previously promised clean energy benefits.

At The Greenlining Institute, our work therefore focuses mainly on what the California Public Utilities Commission calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities. The CPUC defines ESJ communities as communities where residents are:

  • predominantly people of color or living on low incomes;
  • underrepresented in the policy setting or decision-making process;
  • subject to disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and
  • likely to experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations and socioeconomic investments.

These communities, typically composed of renters, have been mostly left out of clean energy solutions to date, despite often paying the highest prices proportionally in utility bills, transit, and overall health. To ensure that these communities actually benefit from the transition to building electrification, we must consciously design and implement electrification policies equitably.

Residents of ESJ communities face particular concerns as we transition away from gas. While affluent families can switch at their convenience from gas to electricity for heating and cooking — and indeed, some have begun to do so — ESJ communities typically don’t have that luxury. Residents of these communities experience multiple and often compounding economic barriers that make electrification nearly impossible if they are expected to go it alone. In California, for example, one-third of households lack sufficient income to meet their basic costs of living. ESJ household budgets, in particular, simply cannot cover the upfront costs of new technology, equipment, and upgrades required to electrify a home.

However, ESJ communities will also be the hardest hit if they wind up as the last customers

served by the gas distribution system. With a dwindling number of customers to support an aging system, costs for individual customers, be they households or businesses, will increase. These costs will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford the risk of the significantly increased bills needed to support aging infrastructure and stranded assets.

The Equitable Building Electrification Framework

Equity begins by recognizing that not all communities have the same social and economic starting point. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, immigrant communities of color, low-income communities and others have long suffered systemic exclusion from opportunities such as homeownership, educational attainment, high-road jobs, and the ability to live in a clean and healthy environment.

We developed the following five-step framework as a roadmap for various stakeholders. It presents a start-to-finish recipe for how the current goals of building electrification can align with producing healthy homes and safer buildings; creating high quality, local jobs that cannot be outsourced; and establishing stronger connections between everyday people and climate change policies and goals.

  • Step 1: Assess Community Needs. This should include understanding barriers preventing community members from electrifying their homes, residents’ knowledge levels regarding building electrification, and their specific needs, wishes, and concerns.
  • Step 2: Establish Community-Led Decision-Making. Rich community input and engagement strengthen the overall program design quality with stronger cultural competence, ensure local buy-in and investment, and deliver tangible local benefits rooted in the lived experiences of everyday people. Partner with community-based organizations to develop a decision-making process that ensures that decisions are based on community needs and priorities.
  • Step 3: Develop Metrics and a Plan for Tracking. Metrics should include both clean energy benefits like greenhouse gas reductions and community benefits such as local hires and residents’ ability to pay their energy bills without sacrificing other essential expenses.
  • Step 4: Ensure Funding and Program Leveraging. Current low-income energy programs often fail to deliver maximum benefits to all qualifying households due to short and unpredictable funding cycles, poor program design that inadequately reaches qualifying customers, or lack of coordination and integration with complementary programs.
  • Step 5: Improve Outcomes. Using the tracking and metrics plan described above, ensure that there is a continuous feedback loop to improve current and future programs’ reach and impact in ESJ communities. Consider adjustments to ensure the program reaches the people it seeks to reach and delivers the intended benefits.

Together we can usher in a just transition to a clean energy economy through building electrification, but this process requires deliberate and inclusive actions. This framework can be used by anyone interested in solving problems with a fresh perspective, removing barriers to participation in the clean energy economy, and bringing communities together around shared goals.

Moving Forward

The era of fossil fuels is coming to a close, as indeed it must in order to prevent climate catastrophe. The benefits of this transition can potentially extend far beyond climate to reduced energy costs, improved indoor air quality, and many thousands of new jobs. This shift will eventually encompass every type of building, from single family homes to small and large apartment complexes, commercial facilities, college campuses and more.

But decarbonizing our building stock will meet with resistance from gas utilities wanting to preserve market share, and implementing building electrification fairly and equitably presents significant challenges. Marginalized communities, such as what California calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities, face particular risks if policymakers do not take specific steps to ensure that their needs are considered and their voices are heard.

As more communities navigate this transition, the experience and expertise of facilities managers can play an important role in shaping this process and maximizing the benefits of building electrification for all involved.

Carmelita Miller is Energy Equity Legal Counsel at The Greenlining Institute and author of Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities

How banks aim to close racial wealth gap: More minorities in leadership

By Allissa Kline
American Banker

Calls for swift action to end systemic racism have gotten louder in the seven weeks since the death of George Floyd, and expectations have mounted for banks to play a major role — especially when it comes to closing the income gap between whites and Blacks.

But to do that, banks will need to get their own houses in order — including diversifying top leadership and middle-management ranks. New hiring and promotional policies could reshape banks’ understanding of local communities’ needs and expand who gets mortgages or small-business loans and which families build lasting wealth, according to sources inside and outside banks.

Including more people of color in bank management would diversify the flow of capital, said Malia Lazu, the chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Hills Bancorp in Boston.

“That really could be revolutionary,” said Lazu, a former community organizer who joined the $13.1 billion-asset bank a year ago and oversees its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “More people of color would own homes, which means they would have equity, which means they may be able to go to college or start a business with that equity. … When you think about who [banks] would make loans to, make investments to, make mortgages to, the ripple effects would be infinite.”

Efforts by several banks to diversify their workforces, leadership teams and boards of directors with more women and minorities have been underway for years. But the combination of the coronavirus pandemic’s heavier toll on minority communities and Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement has put pressure on banks and other businesses to do more — and do it faster. There is still a dearth of people of color in banking, which often means communities of color don’t have the same opportunities to develop wealth as white Americans do.

The main driver of income inequality in the U.S. is institutionalized racism, and more specifically redlining, said Adam Briones, the economic equity director at the Greenlining Institute, a public policy, research and advocacy nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif. Redlining happens when banks refuse to make mortgage loans and provide other services to people based on race or ethnicity.

Because Blacks are systematically shut out of the way most Americans build net worth — homeownership — they can’t tap into that capital, much less pass it on to the next generation.

“Hard work is pretty evenly distributed among all Americans, but what’s not evenly distributed is what we inherit from our families, which our own individual merit or hard work plays no role in,” Briones said.

The result is a racial wealth gap. How deep is the divide? A 2019 report from the Institute for Policy Studies shows that the median wealth for Black families in 2016 was $3,557—about 2% of the median wealth owned by white families, which owned nearly $147,000 in the same year.

Omar Ocampo, a researcher at the institute, said recent numbers from the Federal Reserve’s Distributional Financial Accounts report show the gap persists. During the first quarter of this year, as wealth distribution among all groups in the U.S. declined by more than $6 trillion, the asset gap between white and Black families remained nearly unchanged, with Black families holding just 6% of the assets that whites own.

Ocampo said he is skeptical about whether the hiring and promotion of more Black professionals by banks will have any real impact on the gap. It may work, he said, if there are more Black decision-makers at banks.

“I think what really matters is, how do we redistribute the decision-making power?” he said.

Metrics, accountability at megabanks

Currently there are no people of color on the executive management teams leading three of the nation’s four largest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — which hold a combined $6 trillion in assets. The other, Citigroup, has one Black banker, Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason, on its 16-person executive management team.

The American Bankers Association, which represents banks of all sizes, not only encourages its members to review their diversity, equity and inclusion programs, but provides resources and services to do so.

In testimony given in February before the House diversity and inclusion subcommittee, Naomi Mercer, the ABA’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the industry “has made measurable progress in recent years to diversify its talent pool and leadership and to meet the needs of customers from all walks of life,” but acknowledged that the industry “still has work to do.”

In an interview with American Banker, Mercer said there needs to be accountability on diversity, equity and inclusion matters in order to enact change within an organization. In other words: measure things.

“We talk about measuring everything, not just visible diversity, and we talk about having programs and initiatives in place that analyze the outcomes of what you’ve done,” said Mercer, who joined the ABA in August 2019 after a 25-year military career during which she helped lead the Army’s gender integration program. “Because if you’re not analyzing it, how do you know if the program is effective or not?”

Some banks are already measuring diversity in the workplace. Last year, facing pressure from activist investors, New York-based Citi became the first banking company to disclose the pay gap between men and women across its global operations, with women earning 29% less than men. The $2.2 trillion-asset bank also said that among its U.S. employees, people of color earn 7% less than their white colleagues.

Citi also broke down its U.S. employees by race across all levels of the bank. As of September 2019, just 1.8% of executive and senior managers were Black. Of 66,739 total U.S. employees, 3.4% were Black men while 6.9% were Black women.

To meet its goals — such as making sure that Black and Hispanic colleagues fill 30% of the analyst and associate programs — Citi has embraced targeted recruiting, mentorship and skills development as well as employee affinity groups. It has also designed a compensation program that links executive pay to how well those leaders increase the number of women and U.S. minorities within the bank’s workforce.

JPMorgan, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are taking similar approaches. Last year JPMorgan, the largest bank in the country, with assets oof $3.2 trillion, said it plans to hire more than 4,000 Black students into full-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships over the next five years while also reviewing its recruiting practices, training, products and services and supplier diversity.

Through its Advancing Black Leaders program, which began in 2016, JPMorgan — which was the subject of a New York Times article in late 2019 that described discriminatory treatment of a Black adviser and customers in Arizona — has increased the number of Black professionals in its most senior ranks, raising the number of Black managing directors and executive directors by more than 50% over the last four years. In late June the company said it would cut ties with customers who are racially abusive to call center employees.

As part of Bank of America’s $1 billion pledge to help local communities address economic and racial inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, the $2.6 trillion-asset Charlotte, N.C.-based bank said it would focus on further recruiting and retaining employees in low- to moderate-income and disadvantaged communities. At the $2 trillion-asset Wells Fargo, CEO Charlie Scharf recently told employees that the San Francisco bank will double its Black leadership over the five years (it is currently at 6%) and tie year-end compensation decisions for top leaders to making progress in diversity representation and inclusion.

The Greenlining Institute applauded Wells Fargo’s compensation decision and wants to see more banks do the same thing. Briones said the group is asking other banks to “match or best” these sorts of decisions.

“We want to see competition for who can do better in addressing systemic inequality,” he said.

Efforts at regional, community banks

Greg Carmichael, chairman and CEO of Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati since 2015, said his $185 billion-asset organization already evaluates diversity and inclusion as part of executives’ compensation packages.

“If we’re not where we need to be and plans aren’t making progress, that’s reflected in compensation,” Carmichael said. “We absolutely make those adjustments accordingly.”

As part of a $32.5 billion “community commitment” plan announced in 2016, Fifth Third set out to increase diverse hiring as a way to generate a pipeline of leaders who reflect the communities it serves. Currently, people of color represent 10% of executive and senior managers, 18% of first and midlevel managers, 18% of professionals and 34% of the rest of the workforce, for a total of 26.5% of Fifth Third’s employee base.

Two divisions, commercial and small-business banking, are run by Black men. Carmichael said that Fifth Third has “a lot of work to do,” particularly in the middle layer of the 20,000-employee company where there’s a need for more women and people of color.

The company is partnering with more historically black colleges to recruit Black employees. This year, for the first time, it will publicly share the diversity and inclusion goals it has set for executives and managers.

Last year, Fifth Third raised its starting pay to $18 an hour, a move that is part of a strategy designed not only to attract and retain talent, but to help provide a better quality of life for hourly workers.

Combined with hiring and promoting more people of color, “that’s a way to trickle down through the organization to the next generation to make a difference in the community,” Carmichael said.

“It all goes hand in hand to create a higher standard of living for people,” he added.

Other banks are similarly paying more attention to who they hire and who they promote. Last week PNC Financial Services Group promoted two Black bankers to its executive team, three weeks after it pledged at least $1.05 billion to fight systemic racism. Part of the Pittsburgh company’s financial commitment is to recruit, retain and promote more Black employees.

Meanwhile, M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y., is pursuing “sustainable change” that starts with unpacking unconscious bias throughout the $124.6 billion-asset organization’s 17,000-person workforce, Chief Diversity Officer Glenn Jackson said. It is also undertaking journey mapping to help others understand the career paths of Black professionals and working to “reimagine community banking” to know the community in a better way, he said.

“It takes time, but it’s a sustained effort,” Jackson said. “If you just flipped a switch and change it, you haven’t evolved the culture and you haven’t evolved the system, and this is about systems changing.”

At National Cooperative Bank in Arlington, Va., a focus on hiring and promoting more minorities ramped up in February 2019 when the $2.7 billion-asset bank began a series of discussions and exercises on unconscious bias. From there came the formation of a 12-person fellows program that is in charge of implementing the bank’s diversity, equity and inclusion program. The fellows come from all sections of the bank.

John Holdsclaw IV, executive vice president of strategic initiatives, said the bank, which was created by Congress in 1978 and must make 35% of its loans to low- to moderate-income communities, is in the early stages of making changes that will include affinity groups and, perhaps one day, hiring goals for minorities.

One part of the equation for some banks has been to partner with Year Up, a national organization based in Boston that provides young adults ages 18 to 24 who have a high school diploma or a GED certificate, but no college degree, with 21 weeks of skills training and 26 weeks of internship experience at more than 250 top companies, including JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citi, Capital One Financial and Bank of New York Mellon.

Most of the students are low-income, and about 95% are minorities. Founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian, who started the organization in 2000, said financial services providers, which make up Year Up’s largest segment of clients, have an opportunity to play a big role in reducing income inequality.

“When you have a good job where you can take care of your family and buy a home and give your children what they need, that’s how you reduce the wealth gap in this country,” Chertavian said. “[And] how you make this country more equal economically is by giving people more opportunity to move up and be economically mobile.”

But first banks, and all businesses, have to ask themselves some hard questions.

“What are the practices we have in place to recruit and hire individuals [from diverse backgrounds] and also retain and promote them as well?” Chertavian said. “Where are we looking for talent, and what barriers are we putting in the way that might prevent folks from ever being seen in the first place?”

At Berkshire Hills Bancorp, Lazu and her team are starting to ask those questions. About six months ago, the bank hired a recruiter to connect with people of color about job opportunities.

The pandemic has put a hold on the bank’s hiring for now, but Lazu is optimistic that the recruiter will tap into candidates who might have been overlooked in the past. Employing more people of color — and making them feel empowered within the organization — will open up new business opportunities and more.

“The product set will be different. The way we think about marketing will be different,” Lazu said. “You would also see more empathetic management, more management … knowing they need to stop and take a moment for George Floyd.”

California’s Diverse Communities Need Real Solutions to the Housing Crisis

By Adam Briones
Los Angeles Daily News

California is in the midst of a profound housing crisis. While reasonable people can debate solutions, no one can argue that today’s housing market works for anyone but millionaires. Even before the COVID-19 recession, skyrocketing rents made it difficult for even middle-income Californians to make ends meet, and astronomical home prices have pushed the dream of homeownership almost completely out of reach for people of color.

For too long California has failed to deliver the kind of effective housing reforms our diverse communities need. Rather than reasonable solutions, a stark ideological choice is often presented to voters: you can support more targeted low-income housing or the production of market-rate housing, but not both. If we want to remain a growing state that welcomes everyone, we need to move beyond simplistic narratives and accept that our state needs all kinds of housing for all kinds of Californians. At the same time, we also need to recognize that Black, Asian American, Latino and other communities of color were purposefully blocked from the way in which most American families have built wealth—homeownership.

Beginning in the 1930s, public and private sector leaders prevented diverse families from renting or buying into White neighborhoods, otherwise known as redlining. When courts invalidated explicitly racist laws decades later, cities and towns across the country restricted the construction of multifamily housing — a more legally defensible way to keep out families that might “change the neighborhood character.” Since systemic racism requires systemic solutions, any path out of our housing crisis has to address the wealth that was stolen from our communities and what reparations could look like.

Today’s housing crisis has profoundly impacted people of color, which make up more than 60 percent of our population. Our state has six of the nation’s 11 most expensive large metropolitan rental markets and more than two-thirds of Californians facing unaffordable housing costs are people of color. The average rent in Los Angeles has jumped 65 percent since 2010 and the real estate research firm CoStar noted in April that “the coronavirus outbreak won’t fundamentally alter Southern California’s severe housing shortage, which continually tilts the playing field in favor of landlords and owners.” The result is low-income, often immigrant families across the state living in unsafe, overcrowded homes, with no path to homeownership.

First, we must dramatically increase targeted affordable housing resources to help very low-income families and those experiencing homelessness. The private market will never adequately serve these folks and it’s important we make that explicit.  At the same time, making the process to build quality housing fairer will lead to more affordable rents and home prices for the nine out of ten Californians who live in market-rate housing. For this to happen we need our elected leaders to pass legislation that will support diverse housing types and end “one-size-fits-all” building restrictions. A number of important bills in Senate President Pro Tem Atkins’ housing production package can help. Senate Bill 902 and Senate Bill 1120, among other current bills, will help create more of the small-scale housing development California needs and they should receive strong support. But more needs to be done to address affordable homeownership.

Earlier this month, Assembly Bill 3155, a bill focused on creating more entry-level homeownership opportunities by streamlining the creation of smaller projects, was sidelined in the Assembly. Specifically, it would have made it easier to build developments with 10 or fewer units—the kind of projects corporate builders turn down but that are a good fit for small firms owned by people of color and immigrants. While that bill is dead, the principles can and should still be incorporated by Pro Tem Atkins into existing legislation, including speeding the creation of smaller buildings aimed at working-class homebuyers.

Public policy excluded people of color from neighborhoods and homeownership opportunities for generations, contributing to a wealth gap where Black and Latino families have only ten percent of the wealth white families have. By 2040, our state will be 70 percent people of color and our leaders must ensure greater opportunities for affordable rents and homeownership now and in the future. There is no excuse for further delay.

Adam Briones is the Director of Economic Equity at The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing, and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice.