With unprecedented dollars available for climate resilience work through federal, private and philanthropic funding, NeighborWorks America helped community and affordable housing developers understand the possibilities at its symposium this week. "Climate Resilience: Fostering Wealth, Health and Sustainability in Communities of Color
," attracted a sold-out crowd in Chicago during the NeighborWorks Training Institute. The symposium was the third in a series focusing on advancing equity for people of color.
"As the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters impact our communities, our work in preparedness and recovery is more critical than ever in our service to residents and partners," shared NeighborWorks' Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Susan M. Ifill. The impact of disasters and climate intensity can be greater for the communities we serve, she said. "So often, Black, Native, Latino, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders feel the worst impacts of environmental stress while contributing the least to the change."
Symposium speakers looked at both history and the future as they talked about the impact of climate challenges and the work to combat those challenges. The discussion in front of a room full of community developers was important. For one thing, it was a cross-sector conversation, bringing together people doing climate work, people building communities, and funders, said Rewiring America's Jamal Lewis, director of state and local policy for the Mid-Atlantic and South.
Tackling the climate resilience challenge is vital to meeting the community development mission, added Eric Hangen, whose course "Climate Mitigation: A Toolkit for Community Developers," complemented NeighborWorks' symposium.
Sessions focused on technical expertise, resident and community leadership, and innovations within the NeighborWorks network. "We at NeighborWorks America share a sense of urgency to act," said Marietta Rodriguez, president & CEO of NeighborWorks. "To strengthen our existing partnerships and build new ones. To collaborate in new ways. To encourage innovation. And to focus resources that strengthen the capacity of the network to deploy resources rapidly and effectively into the communities that most need them."
Highlights from the symposium included:
- BlocPower's Donnel Baird, the morning keynote speaker, called the billions in funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act and other resources a "once in a lifetime investment." He discussed his work, which has linked rehabbing buildings with heat pumps and other climate measures to a reduction in health issues, including youth asthma. And he talked about training ex-offenders in climate-related construction to fill a crucial labor shortage in that field. The buildings we live in are central to how we deal with the climate crisis, he added.
- Representatives from the NeighborWorks network shared innovations – and their realization that climate was intrinsically linked to their housing developments. Clemente Mojica, president and CEO at Neighborhood Partnership Housing Services, Inc. (NPHS), said his organization hadn't started thinking about climate but about economic resiliency. He soon found the two went hand in hand. When they looked at community health, finding ways to protect homes and residents from wildfires, that, too, went back to climate. Mojica's advice? Develop a clearly defined framework, make sure it's data-driven and partner with experts.
- Community Partners of South Florida's Jaime-Lee Bradshaw said talking to residents about climate protections meant first talking about lived experiences: the high price of utilities, a park with no shade, the kind of future residents wanted for their children. She doesn't consider herself a climate expert, she said, but she surrounds herself with them. Her job is to lift up the voices of residents in the community and her advice was for others to do the same. "You be an expert in what you do," she said. "You each have the skills to engage folks. You do it every day."
- And from RUPCO's Kevin O'Connor? "I encourage you to look at job training, job creation as well." He called the funding availability a great opportunity, not just for resiliency and better health outcomes for residents, but for real career pathways.
- "Communities of color are hit first and worst" by climate impact, explained Alvaro Sanchez, vice president of policy at The Greenlining Institute. History and redlining play a significant role in what's happening today, he shared, calling the current influx of funding a chance to build the civic infrastructure we need moving forward.
- During technical sessions, experts discussed electrifying homes and again emphasized the link to health, a theme throughout the day. "The No. 1 goal is to get people housed in a healthy manner that can help the residents flourish," said Rewiring America's Lewis. Often, he said, low-income residents aren't thinking first about the type of heating they have. "It's whether or not you have heat." It's important for developers to remember that there are options, "options that don't pollute, that help save you money… that can help usher you into a more resilient future."
- And leaders discussed the importance of knowing the history of the communities they're helping while putting resident voices first. Sunshine Mathon of Piedmont Housing Alliance told the crowd that as you prioritize health and well-being, you also have to look at design and planning through the eyes and voices of the residents.
- How do we sustain this moment? Talia Martin of GRID Alternatives says it's important "to open up doors and have new conversations. To rebuild relationships," including frayed relationships with tribal communities.
- "We've got to put one foot in front of the other," added Trenton Allen of Sustainable Capital Advisors. "It might seem daunting, but we need to take a step and then take the next step."
One of the steps NeighborWorks will take, Rodriguez shared in her closing remarks, will be to partner with GRID Alternatives and a coalition of mission-driven housing providers to pursue Solar for All funding. The organization will also launch a technical assistance program this fall.
Together, Rodriguez said, "NeighborWorks and the NeighborWorks network, in partnership with the capital corporations, are positioned to build resilience and produce lasting health and economic benefits for low-income and disadvantaged communities throughout the country."