March 19, 2021

Climate Adaptation without Environmental Gentrification

Marjan Kris Ramos Abubo

The environmental justice movement rose out of the ambitious but narrow goals heralded by mainstream environmentalists of the 1960s and ’70s. While mainstream environmentalism focused largely on the preservation of natural resources and public lands, the environmental justice movement took inspiration from the concurrent civil rights movement by honing in on the disproportionate exposure of environmental harms on low-income communities of color in urban landscapes. Over the years, the environmental movement has incorporated intersectional environmental justice and equity into their advocacy priorities. But as elected officials and citizens alike make renewed calls for a national commitment to a more climate-resilient future, calls for the passage of a Green New Deal gain political momentum across local and federal decision-making bodies. At the center of this movement is the notion of a “just transition” into a green economy, which asks for, among other things, equitable access to affordable and energy-efficient housing. Yet, unresolved questions of how, and more importantly, where to implement these projects raise concerns among critics who opine that these decisions inadvertently perpetuate the disenfranchisement of poor communities of color.

Renewable energy technology is praised for producing less air and noise pollution than traditional energy sources. And unlike their counterparts, renewable energy technology has the unique ability to be retrofitted and configured inside and around a city’s existing residential and commercial infrastructure. This capability makes sustainable retrofits a critical component to ensuring that cities can meet their climate mitigation targets, as residential buildings accounted for nearly a quarter of energy consumption in 2020. Therefore, it seems that communities that have been historically burdened by pollution exposure should not necessarily be concerned about the possibility of another energy development polluting their neighborhood. Instead, advocates are calling for the fair access and distribution to these renewable energy amenities, which in turn would drive down the energy costs for low-income populations who normally assume a higher energy cost in their budgets.

Many scholars argue that efforts by government agencies to undo issues related to access and equity for historically polluted communities inadvertently perpetuates these social, economic, and environmental injustices. As local and state government agencies seek to decarbonize and meet their emissions reductions targets, they may develop or retrofit infrastructures that increase displacement pressures for lower-income, minority populations. The theory of environmental gentrification explains the process by which environmental cleanups, or other improvements to environmental health, spur the cycle of gentrification. While environmental improvements vary in size and scale and have historically focused on green space and parks development, the incorporation and development of renewable energy amenities is included within this evolving scope. And, because these climate change improvements and additions “renew” blighted neighborhoods that have historically been burdened with environmental exposure, these improvements and additions of green amenities may arguably, in turn, attract more affluent residents who now view these neighborhoods as habitable. Property owners who not only perceive this influx of prospective tenants from higher-income backgrounds but consider the environmentally friendly upgrades to their rental units as a luxury may increase the cost of rent and place the financial burden on existing tenants. The financial stressors placed on renter populations may ultimately push out these longtime tenants, usually of lower-income and minority backgrounds, to more affordable fringe areas outside of their neighborhoods. 

For example, revenue generated from regional greenhouse gas initiatives allow for programs to exist that drive down the costs to implement sustainability systems and projects, thereby making communities more climate resilient. Yet, one critique is that a majority of these programs are catered around those who own their homes and properties. While renters often do not qualify for these clean energy initiatives themselves, landlords may be eligible for these programs, allowing them to upgrade their rental properties with energy-efficient devices. Some argue how there is unfettered control for landlords and property-owners to view their clean energy investment on their properties as a rationale for increasing rental prices, even if they receive subsidies (which are intended to keep energy upgrades competitively low). Thus, while the prophetic idea of a sustainable future is available to all, it seems that a green market does a disservice to renter populations.

This notion of environmental gentrification and its many iterations was popularized in response to the growing concern that green space development meant to increase access for disadvantaged communities caused rental prices to increase in historically under-invested neighborhoods. But as cities struggle to reconcile sustainability with equity, renter population displacement is the ultimate consequence. Some argue that these issues are better reserved for the market forces to determine, but advocates for sustainable development, and especially environmental attorneys, should have a vested interest in combating green gentrification.

Landmark laws such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) followed the symphony of environmental legislation that sought to tackle the mounting problems associated with environmental pollution and hazardous exposure. Environmental attorneys were, and currently are, responsible for facilitating environmental cleanups, advising municipal governments on the risks and costs associated with “urban renewal,” and negotiating agreements for these redevelopment projects. In spite of CERCLA and RCRA’s varying successes associated with environmental cleanup efforts and holding hazardous waste producers accountable, a toxic byproduct is the socioeconomic harms placed on already vulnerable renter populations––something that the legislation fails to account for. Ultimately, environmental benefits that come out of this process are not enjoyed by the communities that these projects anticipated to serve and instead push these communities to other areas.

Currently, there is no primary policy or legal model that can best fix the negative consequences of green gentrification, but there are opportunities to tether anti-displacement policies to climate change mitigation. Calls to make grant funding and financing mechanisms primarily contingent on the agreement to anti-displacement policies offer an opportunity to prioritize low-income tenants in actions to increase sustainability in housing units. But in advocating to build more climate-friendly communities with equity in mind, environmental organizations should draw inspiration from the broader anti-displacement/anti-homelessness movement. A central theme to strong anti-displacement tools emphasizes the public’s “rights.” For one, the city and county of San Francisco passed the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) in 2019 to require landlords to notify housing nonprofits about a potential sale, and to give them a right of first refusal––that is, not only notifying housing groups of multifamily properties on the market but giving these organizations the opportunity to match a private buyer’s offer as a means for eventually increasing the city’s affordable housing stock. 

Another proposal asks for a right of return policy to be included in development agreements. In particular, this policy prioritizes renters who were displaced from their original units due to urban renewal projects and will only be asked to pay for the same amount that they were paying prior to the renovations to the building. Pioneered in Portland and taking hold in other urban centers facing displacement, iterations of this policy are aimed at ensuring that long-standing residents can enjoy the amenities provided by upgrades without suffering the economic consequences.  To underline the public’s right, local governments are exploring avenues to ensure that tenant populations have the ability to access legal counsel when it comes to rental disputes. Originally implemented in New York, renters’ access to legal representation has become the talking point of political races in large urban centers facing the impacts of both climate changend homelessness. Without these legal safeguards, vulnerable populations are often pushed out of their neighborhoods and into surrounding areas. Not only are they disconnected from long-standing community networks, but the exclusion of lower-income populations completely undercuts the city’s climate mitigation goals as well as its efforts to increase access and equity.  All in all, the policy proposals underline the importance of legal advocates’ roles in mitigating displacement pressures.

Local governments and elected officials should not be discouraged from reaching their sustainability targets, but they must not turn a blind eye to the unintended consequences of climate adaptation. In pursuing initiatives that will curb the negative consequences of climate change, cities must be proactive, mindful, and intentional about how they implement climate-resiliency programs without perpetuating the time-old notion that environmentalism is a luxury good only accessible to those who can afford it.

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    Marjan Kris Ramos Abubo

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    Marjan Kris Ramos Abubo (he/him) is a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law focusing on the intersections of land use and tax law as it relates to environmental justice and equity. He is patiently waiting for the issuance of a national carbon tax on the country’s biggest polluters.