Progressive Act Addresses Environmental, Social Justice
January 18, 2021
More than 500 community members flooded Zoom last Tuesday night to witness the launch of the Rescue Rhode Island Act, a $300 million legislative package meant to simultaneously address climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, among other crises.
The act will put forth three bills to the General Assembly: one to spur green and affordable housing construction; one to expand locally-sourced food production; and one to protect clean air and water.
“We have the power to ensure that every single person in Rhode Island — Black, Brown, White, Indigenous, and immigrant — has a dignified job with a living wage, can afford a comfortable home with enough food, and can walk or play outside with clean air,” said Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, one of the bill’s sponsors.
The legislation is championed by three newly sworn in senators — Mack, Sen. Jonathon Acosta, D-Central Falls, and Sen. Kendra Anderson, D-Warwick — and Reps. David Morales, D-Providence, and Brianna Henries, D-East Providence. All five ran as a part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which required members to support the adoption of a Green New Deal. The Rescue Rhode Island Act bears close resemblance to the policy, which Robert Hockett, professor of law at Cornell University and a leading architect of the congressional Green New Deal resolution, affirmed.
Renew Rhode Island, a newly formed coalition co-chaired by Monica Huertas, executive director of The People’s Port Authority, and Emma Bouton, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, is backing the proposed legislation. The group has at least 15 member organizations, including organized labor, frontline communities, and environmental, racial, and social justice groups. Thirteen more groups indicated their support for the Rescue Rhode Island Act.
The coalition is working within the regional Renew New England Alliance, formed in early 2020, which aims to pass similar legislation in the five other New England states. This “unprecedented” regional effort will “create a model for the rest of the country” to address racial, economic, and environmental justice, Mack said.
The legislative package
In its first bill, the Rescue Rhode Island Act tackles affordable housing, greenhouse-gas emissions, and unemployment through the Housing Jobs Construction Program. Spending $200 million annually for the next decade, this program will fund “thousands of high-quality, energy-efficient residential apartments across the state that are equipped with rooftop solar panels,” according to a coalition press release.
Apartment residents, low- and middle-income families, wouldn’t be charged over 20 percent of their annual income in rent. And, to stimulate employment and construction of the new residences, the bill would launch a union-led job-training program in energy-efficient construction and solar panel installation.
“Housing is a basic right,” Henries said at the bill’s Jan. 12 launch, noting that about 22 percent of Rhode Island renters put more than 50 percent of their annual income toward rent.
To meet the need for affordable housing in Providence alone, the city would need to build 850 units each year for the next 10 years.
The second bill would move the state toward a more localized, self-sustaining food system by “developing a network of community land trusts … that will pay workers … to produce local food in ecologically sustainable ways,” according to the coalition.
Anderson noted that $75 million a year for the next decade would ensure the growth of the program, with funding specifically directed toward low- and middle-income communities. She said decisions on what to grow and how to distribute the food would be “democratically controlled” by local communities.
The final bill would create green justice zones, the first of which would encompass Washington Park and the South Side of Providence. The neighborhoods are in a zip code that contains a greater number of polluting facilities than any other in Providence County. These, alongside polluting facilities outside of the zone that contribute to pollution within it, would be required “to shut down,” Mack said.
The bill would then disburse $25 million annually for the next decade to fund “green justice projects” such as replacing lead pipes; the community would ultimately decide how to allocate the money.
Polluting facilities include petroleum refineries, hazardous waste storage sites, and chemical manufacturing plants.
If the bill is adopted, new polluting facilities proposed in communities that already experience a disproportionately high level of pollution would be “automatically” denied.
Renew Rhode Island suggested several routes to pay for the hefty $300 million a year package, including raising the top marginal tax rate by 5 percent on the richest 1 percent of Rhode Islanders and raising the tax on high-end real-estate transactions by 1.5 percent.
A union of labor and environment
Renew Rhode Island’s explicit coalition of labor with environmental groups marks a notable shift in the state’s political dynamics. In the past, environmental, social-justice, and community groups clashed with unions over fossil-fuel infrastructure projects such as a proposed power planet in Burrillville and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facility in Providence. Generally, labor unions approved of the projects, with environmental, social-justice, and community groups opposed.
“A wealthy and powerful few have long sought to divide labor and environmental social- and racial-justice groups because they can only maintain their power when we are isolated and divided,” Bouton said. “But by joining together … to fight for a common goal — good jobs that meet Rhode Islanders’ most urgent needs — we can build more power than we ever could alone.”
The coalition currently has only one labor union in its membership, Carpenters Local 330. Ben Branchaud, a spokesperson for the group, noted that the union initially joined the Renew New England coalition to advocate for legislation that focuses on supporting fossil-fuel workers in a transition to green energy. Of the Rescue Rhode Island legislative package, the union is particularly in support of the housing bill.
“It provides sorely-needed safe, healthy, affordable, and low-income housing, while creating construction jobs that pay fair wages,” Branchaud said.
A.J. Braverman, Rhode Island organizing director for Renew New England, noted that Renew Rhode Island is seeking to grow its union membership. In particular, the group is reaching out to the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, an organization representing 16 affiliated unions in the state.
The council supported the proposed fossil-fuel infrastructure in Burrillville and the LNG facility in Providence. The council’s president, Michael Sabitoni, didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding Renew Rhode Island and the Rescue Rhode Island Act.
With a total of eight senators and five representatives co-sponsoring the legislation, the Renew Rhode Island coalition will need to gain more support in the Statehouse for the legislation to succeed.
While Braverman noted that the coalition has “had conversations with a number of supportive members of the Democratic caucus,” the group is also relying on constituent support built through the Renew Rhode Island coalition.
With more 500 participants tuning into the virtual launch, dozens of messages flooded into a Zoom chat about how the Rescue Rhode Island Act could impact lives.
“My family can buy food without feeling burdened by other bills.”
“Knowing my son will have a livable future.”
“Elevated lead level would not have been an issue for my child.”
News of the legislation’s launch spread through Twitter, which is how Providence native Danny Cordova, 26, heard about it. Growing up on the South Side and West Side of Providence, Cordova said these neighborhoods are “often forgotten about.”
Cordova lived near a highway and said he experienced a lot of pollution. Centering the Rescue Rhode Island Act around investment in these communities and undoing environmental racism gave him hope.
“Having some more focus on rebuilding communities, like investing in solar panel apartments, affordable housing, community gardens, these are things that really stuck in my mind,” Cordova said. “It’s something that I really think would help out those communities.”
The food and housing support system the Rescue Rhode Island Act offers could also be a lifeline to workers in the arts such as Kathryn Boland, 32, of Newport, who writes about and teaches yoga and dance. Affording rent without a 40-hour a week well-paying job “can be a real struggle,” she said.
She noted that balancing a budget with factors like safety and proximity to public transit can make the search for housing difficult.
Limiting rent to a certain percentage of income, as suggested by the Renew Rhode Island Act, would alleviate the type of struggle Boland has faced before, especially when living in cities such as New York and Boston.
“I would tell people what I make and what I have to pay in rent, and they’re like, ‘They allow you to do that?’” Boland said. “Because of the percentage that it is of my income.”
Providing support systems to people in between jobs or in poverty is a need Cheyenne Thompson, 22, of Providence is witnessing firsthand. With her job lost because of the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson’s 20-year-old sister and her newborn baby recently moved in with Thompson.
“Because she’s low-income, because she’s a single mother, what systems are in place to actually make sure that she gets the help she needs?” Thompson asked.
To Thompson, the proposed Rescue Rhode Island Act paints a clear picture of how policy can be used to break cycles of poverty and allow low-income people to “live their lives the way they want to live it, without having to sacrifice their basic needs.”