New Yorkers’ knowledge of their neighborhoods’ environmental history could help the state decide where it targets billions of dollars in green investments in the coming decades.
As state officials and agencies gear up to spend serious cash on the clean-energy economy to achieve mandates under a sweeping climate law passed in 2019, certain localities are set to get extra attention and money.
The goal is to right past environmental wrongs and to protect future populations more vulnerable to either nature or injustice. The law specifies that “disadvantaged communities” must receive at least 35% of the total statewide spending on clean and energy efficiency programs.
“We are talking about billions of dollars on the table here,” said Natalie Bump Vena, an urban studies professor at Queens College who is studying how the state implements the climate law. “What’s at stake if the state gets it wrong? … You’ll have communities living with climate injustice who will not receive the resources the legislation aims to give them.”
There’s a proposal put forth that defines where those disadvantaged areas should be, but not everyone agrees with how those boundaries have been drawn so far.
“I’m shocked that our area is not on the list,” said Amit Shivprasad, whose family owns a house on 183rd Street in Queens where two people drowned in a basement apartment when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit in September. “Our street floods every time it rains. How is it not part of it?”
Under the current proposal, Shivprasad’s Hollis neighborhood is not considered disadvantaged.
You might be surprised to learn, too, whether or not your block is listed as a part of a disadvantaged community. To find out, check out the interactive map the state created (Be patient, as it can be slow to load).
If your neighborhood is purple, it’s designated a “disadvantaged community” — meaning it’s guaranteed to receive special prioritization under the state’s climate law.
If it’s not, it won’t be eligible for those specially designated funds.
Before then, the state will also be holding 11 public hearings in May and June for the public to offer feedback both in person and remotely.
An Act for Climate Justice
Under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York must achieve a so-called carbon neutral economy by 2050, mainly through the expanded use of clean energy sources and extensive electrification.
Reaching the target will cost roughly $300 billion, according to estimates by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
The law not only aims to decarbonize the economy, but also represents an effort to rectify societal inequities exacerbated by the effects of climate change in areas that already face hardships. The CLCPA means to prioritize reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in those areas.
The state’s Climate Justice Working Group (CJWG), composed of representatives of environmental justice organizations, undertook a data-driven process led by a consultant to determine the areas that the state would consider “disadvantaged.”
The group released a draft map in early March that shows 35% of census tracts across New York state are considered disadvantaged under the criteria. The five boroughs contain about 60% of those tracts.
Those tracts translate into about 50% of all households considered disadvantaged statewide, and in New York City, nearly 60% of households.
The definition of each area comes from weighing “45 indicators” representing environmental burdens and risks — such as inland flooding and traffic density — as well as population characteristics and health vulnerabilities, such as emergency room visits for asthma-related symptoms and whether a household has internet access.
Any household with an income under 60% of the state median income — about $63,000 for a family of four — is also included as disadvantaged, but may not appear on the map.
Those factors help “create the story of disadvantage,” said Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice and a member of the CJWG.
“We view climate investments as something that means we’re creating longer term, sustaining improvements in the community,” she added.
A challenge the state will have to confront is how to avoid spreading the money intended for disadvantaged communities too thin — how to allocate 35 to 40% of spending to upwards of 50% of households fairly and in a way that results in robust outcomes, along the lines of what Jessel described.
According to the draft proposal, entire neighborhoods — such as Soundview and Mott Haven in The Bronx, College Point in Queens and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn — are considered disadvantaged.
The Hole, which straddles both Queens and Brooklyn, is also considered disadvantaged under the proposal. That’s a neighborhood where most residents aren’t connected to the city’s sewer system and must contend with lakes of standing water in their streets.
But because the breakdown is by census tract, certain neighborhoods, like Hollis, are divided: some blocks are considered disadvantaged, but others are not.
‘They Need to Take Another Look’
While Shivprasad’s section of Hollis isn’t considered disadvantaged on the preliminary map, the census tract just three blocks south of his home, across from Jamaica Avenue is.
Crossing the avenue, the neighborhood is more industrial compared to the neatly fenced in plots of residential Hollis. Pockets of stand-alone three story houses sit among abundant car repair shops, some storage facilities and the Long Island Railroad’s Hillside Maintenance Complex, with the elevated train line snaking through.
Vishal Hardwar, the chair of Community Board 12’s land use subcommittee, lives a few blocks southwest of Shivprasad’s house in an area that is currently labeled as “disadvantaged.”
“I can tell you when it rained that much in September, I had no flooding in my area, and Amit got four feet of water,” Hardwar said. “So whoever drew this map, they need to just take another look at it because it makes absolutely no sense when what has happened to them, it is not a one time event.”
Whenever rain was forecast, Shivprasad’s family would make sure they had sandbags ready, and neighbors checked in with one another.
“That, to me, tells a story of hey, they’ve been dealing with this for a very long time, and something needs to be done about it,” Harwar said.
But none of the disadvantaged communities are set in stone yet. And even when the areas are finalized this summer, the CJWG must meet each year to revisit which tracts are considered disadvantaged communities and can adjust as they see fit.
Money for a Rainy Day
The Hochul administration, which is aiming for a 40% investment in “disadvantaged communities,” has already teed up millions of dollars of investments for those areas, even before their definition has been officially set.
The state will count only dollars spent towards the 35% minimum goal compliance, even as the agencies track related, non-financial benefits.
This includes investments for workforce development and pollution reduction that result in better air quality and health, jobs and energy cost savings. The investments could aim to help an area mitigate the effects of climate change, adapt to them or become more resilient.
“This is the first time in anyone’s memory that there is a tool now that will help transparently identify what are the neighborhoods that face these particular vulnerabilities based on these [funding and pollution] disparities and how do we intentionally invest so that we’re reducing those vulnerabilities and those impacts?” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and a member of the CJWG. “That’s long overdue.”
Breaking out communities that are guaranteed to receive benefits is essential to ensure communities that have been “historically left out” are accounted for as the state spends money to fight climate change, Jessel said.
This is a complicated idea for Shivprasad’s block in Hollis because it did receive an investment: the neighborhood was one of the sites of a $20.5 million city project to replace and install sewer and water mains, completed last June.
But the project didn’t do much to alleviate the flooding, Shivprasad said. He and his neighbors still feel vulnerable; they can hardly afford to keep paying the costs for flood repairs.
“I’m worried about the next flood that happens here,” said Shivprasad, who has advocated for government buyouts in the area. “I think a lot of people will suffer severe, severe damages and who knows — we might even lose more lives.”