Portland community leaders bring the heat to building standards

An activist collective says making buildings carbon-free is just the start.

 

On a cold December morning, Anjeanette Brown sat inside a Shari’s restaurant, nursing a cup of coffee and casually pushing sharp objects out of the reach of their 1-year old daughter. Brown, a Black environmental activist, grew up in northeast Portland, once home to a thriving Black community. The area’s cornerstones — the Cotton Club, Joe’s Place and Geneva’s Shear Perfection — survive only as historical posters, replaced by faux French cafes and vegan restaurants. Brown now lives farther east, around an hour’s commute from downtown.

Every winter, Brown worries about energy bills. Their rental home heats with a wood stove — the cheapest option — but this year, they told me, pulling a fork from their daughter’s fist and smiling at her antics, “I’m not going to use my wood.” That’s mainly for the safety of the child, who gurgled happily and turned her attention to the creamer packages. The only other option, however, is space heaters, which are also problematic: They’re expensive, running just under $400 a month for the three coldest months of the year, and they’re also potentially dangerous; a space heater in a Bronx high-rise, where tenants had previously reported problems with the heat, sparked a fire this January that killed 17 people. Portland lacks standards for energy, health, efficiency or climate resilience in existing buildings, so Brown has little recourse to demand more options.

Members of the Build/Shift Collective (from left): Anjeanette Brown, Derric Thompson, Ezell Watson, Taren Evans, Nikita Daryanani, Samantha Hernandez, Alma Pinto, Bretto Jackson and Jona Davis. Photographed in Portland, Oregon, in February.

On average, Black, Latino and low-income families live in less energy-efficient homes and pay more for their energy, with low-income households spending the most, up to 38% of their income, according to the Oregon Energy Fund. But access to the energy needed to heat and cool homes isn’t just a matter of cost. It’s also a matter of survival: Climate change, created by the burning of fossil fuels, has made extreme weather and wildfire smoke increasingly common and severe. This summer, a record-breaking heat dome killed at least 95 people in Oregon, a disproportionate number of them people of color and those living on lower incomes. At its core, safe, clean and affordable heating and cooling has become a justice issue.

“I feel like if we don’t champion this work now, there’s nothing. There’s nothing left to really fight for. This has to be fixed, now.”

“I see year by year the fires are getting closer to our neighbors, the smoke is taking people out, and the heat is killing people,” said Brown. “I feel like if we don’t champion this work now, there’s nothing. There’s nothing left to really fight for. This has to be fixed, now.”

Brown is part of a collective that is working to address the health, climate and equity issues associated with homes. The Build/Shift Collective, which stands for “Building Community, Shifting Power,” is a grassroots group in Portland made up almost exclusively of people of color, many of them low-income renters. Buildings are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but the push to decarbonize them needs to involve more than just emissions, the activists believe. Decarbonization should also account for the unequal effects of climate change, racist housing policies and air pollution on communities of color, and it should strive to make sure everyone has access to a healthy home, not just an energy-efficient one.

LATE LAST NOVEMBER, I logged onto a virtual meeting with some of the core members of Build/Shift. The collective came out of the Zero Cities Project, developed in 2017 as an initiative to help cities develop practical, equitable road maps to achieving a zero-net-carbon building sector by 2050. Since the fall of 2020, the participants have gathered about once a week to discuss, among other things, a set of building standards they’re developing with the city of Portland. Around 10 people popped up on screen, some at home or in offices, a few in their cars.

Ezell Watson joined from the lobby of his apartment building. A man with a big smile who chooses his words carefully, Watson works as the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission, although he joined the collective as a private citizen. “Energy or the restriction of it or the placement of non-clean energy has been systematically used to devalue certain communities,” explained Watson, who is Black. “We’ve always had to live on the margins. That’s where all of the pollutants are.”

Watson’s parents, who live in Atlanta, have health problems that he believes are connected to their exposure to dirty energy. “It is critically important for my mom to have clean energy. ... She needs good clean air because she’s already struggling some days to get out of the bed,” said Watson. “My father, 60 years old, has suffered multiple strokes.”  The World Health Organization has called air pollution a “silent public health emergency” that’s linked to higher rates of depression and suicide as well as to asthma, lung damage and a slew of other health problems. This also applies to the air indoors: A growing body of research has found that the same fossil fuels behind climate change also cause significant indoor air pollution, especially from sources like gas stoves.

Scientists, activists and local governments have made reducing buildings’ carbon emissions a major focus of climate action. Dozens of municipalities and cities have started to restrict the use of natural gas and limit the amount of energy new buildings can use. Late last year, the Eugene, Oregon, City Council approved starting a process that could lead to a ban on natural gas hookups in all new commercial and residential buildings.

But there’s one problem with that approach: It doesn’t limit current emissions, only future ones. “There’s no emissions coming from buildings that haven’t been built yet,” said Olivia Walker, technical strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The focus on new buildings is also more likely to help higher-income people and white residents. “They’re not the ones facing the issues that a low-performing building stock has brought about,” said Walker.

“We’ve always had to live on the margins. That’s where all of the pollutants are.”

Many people living in older, energy-inefficient and low-quality housing are there because of racist policies like redlining and decades of discriminatory lending and development. In the early 20th century, for example, the city of Portland effectively restricted African Americans to a single neighborhood, which it later razed under the guise of urban renewal, displacing many of the families. Now, some community members fear energy incentives will also be used to evict people, especially if communities of color are not involved in designing the new policies. Studies generally concur, showing that shifting to more renewable energy consumption can inadvertently drive up energy poverty.

“We’re going to always be on the end of the stick that gets oppressed,” said collective member Bretto Jackson. “In this case, it’s just that this energy is clean energy,”

One common problem with trying to make rental housing more energy efficient is that landlords who don’t pay the utility bills often have little incentive to make energy improvements in rentals. When they do, however, they often use it as an excuse to evict tenants, contributing to displacement. It’s something energy experts refer to as the “split-incentive” barrier.

“When the value goes down, they swoop in and push these people out, then they’re gonna build it up again,” said Derric Thompson, another coalition member, during the Zoom call. “In northeast Portland, they’re gone. But now there’s condos, so why couldn’t those things have been built with the Black people in the community?”

THE BUILD/SHIFT COLLECTIVE is fighting to make sure that history is not repeated, in part through the new rules they are working on with the city: the Health, Equitable Energy, Anti-Displacement, Resilience, and Temperature control, or HEART, standards. The requirements would apply to the city’s largest existing commercial and multifamily residential buildings. They would require landlords to insulate all units properly and have air conditioning installed. They would also make sure that renters have the resources to push back whenever housing isn’t up to code, without fear of eviction.

In the first months of this year, Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will prepare draft rules and begin getting public input. If the city council approves the rules, a version of the HEART standards could be implemented within the next few years.

“We’re going to always be on the end of the stick that gets oppressed. In this case, it’s just that this energy is clean energy.”

While that would be a huge step forward for the collective’s energy policy, Build/Shift has its eyes set on a bigger vision: shifting more of the political power to people of color. “You look around this room, you see diversity in here,” said Watson at the end of our Zoom call last November. “Build/Shift had to be intentional about that. It’s intentional that certain groups are excluded from the discussion.”

The collective wants more BIPOC representatives to help draft and make policy, but also to change where and how policy is made. “We do need our people at these tables,” said Brown, who volunteers as an urban forestry commissioner and spends a lot of their time attending meetings far from their home. “The problem is not people can’t or they won’t. It’s because it’s not accessible.”

Back at Shari’s, Brown talked about Build/Shift’s ideas for a truly equitable energy future. For them, a lot of it comes down to the kind of world they can leave their children. “I envision that we are champions in saving our environment at whatever cost for our benefit, for our future generations,” they said, looking at their daughter. “Hopefully, she can have her own problems. And she can champion them herself.”

Sarah Sax is the climate justice fellow at High Country News currently living in rural Washington. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Note: This story was updated to correct that the Build/Shift Collective stands for “Building Community, Shifting Power.” 

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