The Green New Deal is already at work in one Portland neighborhood

How one community is building a green workforce to combat climate change.

 

With a large crowd of community members as an audience, the Sugar Shack in Cully neighborhood is destroyed to make room for a new affordable housing development, Las Adelitas.
Courtesy of Living Cully

It’s a cloudy gray day in Cully, a neighborhood in northeastern Portland, and the air is thick with the smell of burnt tires. The culprit? An asphalt manufacturing plant, where black rubble is piled into one long heaping mound, waiting to be hauled off to areas across the city to fill in old potholes and pave new streets.

Cully is located in one of the city’s most culturally diverse pockets, but the predominantly low-income neighborhood is regularly subject to industrial pollution. Automobile salvage lots, including one that caught fire and spewed toxic chemicals into the air last year, litter entire city blocks with old car parts and used tires. 

Across the street from the asphalt plant, a barren parking lot is cordoned off by a chain-link fence. This was formerly the site of the Sugar Shack, a notorious strip club and adult video store that was torn down less than two months ago. After the owners’ arrest in 2015 for tax fraud and running a prostitution ring, the lot became a meeting spot for neighborhood groups and community members. Now, thanks to a coalition of four local organizations that goes by the name Living Cully, the site will soon be home to a new affordable housing complex: Las Adelitas, named in honor of the women soldiers who fought during the Mexican Revolution.

On the surface, this housing complex in one of the most rapidly gentrifying corners of the country will be much like any other development designed to help respond to the national housing crisis. But dig a little deeper, and Las Adelitas has the potential to become a model for much more — a solution not only to the displacement of longtime residents but to the lack of green investment in the low-income communities of color that are already on the front lines of the looming climate change crisis. 

Dig deeper still, and Las Adelitas — together with the whole Living Cully framework — begins to look a lot like the much-touted Green New Deal: a preliminary plan put forth by Democratic congressional members to create a “green workforce” that will build out green infrastructure and clean energy projects while bringing economic opportunities to vulnerable communities. The long-term success or failure of Living Cully could provide a window into an ambitious national program that’s still in the visionary stage today. 

Now a landscape crew supervisor, Mateo Fletes Cortes, center, specializes in habitat restoration at Verde Landscaping.
Naim Hasan

WHEN THE GREAT RECESSION HIT in 2008, Mateo Fletes Cortes, who lives in the town next to Cully, lost his job. Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, Fletes Cortes moved to Oregon with his uncle in 2002, picking up work in construction, building out wooden window frames, installing baseboards, and adding finishing touches to buildings and houses. But when the construction industry collapsed, so did Fletes Cortes’ job stability. He’d heard about opportunities in landscaping work but been reluctant to apply, associating landscaping with unskilled low-wage labor. Then he heard about Verde.

The area nonprofit, which is also the lead organizer of Living Cully, operates a landscaping company called Verde Landscaping. The business was started in 2005 in order to train and employ residents to do sustainable landscaping for affordable housing developments built by Hacienda CDC, a Latino Community Development Corporation. Hacienda is also a member organization of Living Cully, and the owner of Las Adelitas. At Verde, wages start at $13.50 an hour and increase to $18.50 by the third year of employment, with paid training sessions and certification provided, as well as medical and dental benefits. So far, the program has trained over 200 area residents in jobs like stormwater management and habitat restoration, according to Verde’s executive director, Tony DeFalco. Ironically, as the economy has picked up in recent years, it’s become harder to recruit labor for the training program, DeFalco said. “You’ve got historically low unemployment, and so it can be really challenging to be competitive.” 

Through Verde’s workforce training program, Fletes Cortes took English classes, received industry certifications, and learned that landscaping was indeed for him. “As fate would have it, I started to work in habitat restoration,” something he’d previously known nothing about, Fletes Cortes said. “I saw that (landscaping) wasn’t just about working a lawnmower.” Rather, it could be about restoring wildlife habitats or redirecting stormwater to hydrate vegetation and native plants and shrubs.

These days, Fletes Cortes spends a lot more time in the office, having been promoted to landscape crew supervisor. Bidding for landscaping contracts and checking on equipment and crewmembers keep him busy. He’s been with Verde for a decade, and today, he manages other employees in the workforce program. When the Las Adelitas project gets fully underway, it will be highly skilled workers like Fletes Cortes who carry out the necessary landscaping and subsequent maintenance work for the planned 140 affordable housing units and ground-level commercial spaces.

Brenna Bailey and Linda Dentler volunteer to inventory Living Cully's mobile home weatherization program supplies.
Courtesy of Living Cully

LIVING CULLY'S MOTTO CAN SEEM COUNTERINTUITIVE at first: “Sustainability as an anti-poverty strategy.” After all, it’s now widely believed that the more green investments like parks and vegetation appear in a neighborhood, the more desirable (and expensive) that place becomes, often pushing longtime residents out of their homes and neighborhoods. The phenomenon even has its own trendy name: “green gentrification.” This is certainly a challenge in Cully, where, despite anti-displacement efforts, housing prices are in fact rising. But DeFalco believes that pairing housing projects with environmental investments will be key to the project’s success. “(That) is a really simple recipe for proofing the community against green gentrification,” he said.

  • Local residents and food cart businesses discussed plans for Las Adelitas, an affordable housing complex, at a community workshop in the Cully neighborhood in 2017.

    Courtesy of Salazar Architects
  • A rendering of the new Las Adelitas housing development in Cully neighborhood.

    Courtesy of Salazar Architect Inc.
  • Courtesy of Salazar Architect Inc.
  • Courtesy of Salazar Architect Inc.

That experiment is coming together in Las Adelitas: Verde Builds will construct the building’s green features; green roofs and walls, solar panels, water reuse systems are all being considered in the design. Verde Landscaping will provide local skilled workers to build out green stormwater infrastructure as well as sustainable landscaping. The housing project is expected to be completed by 2020.

In addition to Las Adelitas, Living Cully partners are not only creating energy-efficient affordable housing but also preserving existing low-income housing, through initiatives like a mobile home weatherization program that aims to lower bills of low-income residents who pay a disproportionate amount of their paychecks to utilities. And there are other benefits: That weatherization allows low-income residents to lower their energy use and therefore, their carbon footprint. In August, Portland City Council passed a new zoning designation to protect mobile home parks in Portland from redevelopment, thanks to organizing efforts by Living Cully partners and other area organizations. 

As Congress continues to figure out what a Green New Deal might look like on a national scale, Cully could become a valuable and tangible model community to turn to for inspiration. “We are at a place now, where — as a nation — we can no longer make an environmental investment without social and environmental justice outcomes,” DeFalco said. “What we’ve been able to do here at a smaller scale is basically to demonstrate how you do that.” 

Verde Landscaping employees Rosa Flores and Claudia Gonzales work at Cully Park.
Courtesy of Living Cully

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.