Government

Public Backs Package of Bills That Would Tackle Pollution, Food Insecurity, Affordable Housing

The sponsors of the three bills collectively known as the Rescue Rhode Island Act say the legislation offers hope for the future. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — Callers to a recent House committee hearing on a trio of bills addressing industrial pollution, affordable housing and food insecurity ranged from a mother who described her child’s illness from lead exposure to teenagers fearful for their environmental and economic futures.

The House Finance Committee convened May 25 to take public testimony on the Green Justice Zone Act, the Housing Construction Act and the Food Security and Agricultural Jobs Act, collectively known as the Rescue Rhode Island Act.

Testimony offered by phone because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions lasted more than three hours despite preregistered residents and advocates having only 2 minutes each for comments. Callers overwhelmingly supported the bills as means to address a variety of concerns, including racial injustice, employment, utility costs, local farming, the climate and health repercussions of industrial waste.

The bills were filed separately but received a joint hearing from the committee that will decide whether to send them to the full House for consideration. Committee members voted at the outset of the hearing to hold the bills for further study, which is standard procedure for new legislation and isn’t an indication of likely success or failure.

Green Justice Zone Act
Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, said he filed the legislation (H5674) to fight pollution, protect public health and move the economy toward renewable energy and climate-resilient industries.

Morales said his bill would establish a green-justice zone in the Port of Providence area, including the city’s South Side and Washington Park neighborhoods, which he said “unfortunately are home to some of the most polluted communities in the entire state and the entire country.”

The legislation would require new or preexisting industrial facilities to obtain licenses to operate in the zone after Dec. 1, 2022. Licenses would be overseen by a community board of six residents living within the zone. Businesses banned from obtaining licenses as a result of air and water pollution inherent to their operations would include petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, scrap metal yards, landfills and fossil-fuel storage sites, Morales said.

“Failure to receive these licenses would result in significant fines for the polluting industries that have caused so much damage to our communities in the port,” he said. “Therefore, the community whose heath and livelihood has been impacted for so long would finally have an opportunity to reimagine and influence the port and the role that it plays in our state and our city.”

The proposed resident board would coordinate with neighbors about investing state funding in environmental remediation projects such as lead pipe replacement, air ventilation system upgrades and rooftop solar panel installations.

The bill would also establish a “just transition” program within the state Department of Labor and Training offering free job training and apprenticeships to workers from facilities closed by the zone’s licensing restrictions. Participants would be eligible for two years of salary equal to their previous positions, Morales said.

“Ultimately, this program would prepare workers who were previously engaged in a polluting industry an opportunity to obtain a new, sustainable job in the growing industries of clean energy, sustainable infrastructure and climate resiliency,” Morales said.

He said financing sources for the bill could include federal grants and relief funding, low-interest general obligation bonds, reduction of current budget appropriations for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and prioritization of environmental justice initiatives yielding tax revenue, including cannabis legalization and repeal of state tax cuts for wealthy residents passed in 2006.

Committee member Rep. George Nardone, R-Coventry, questioned Morales about the amount of revenue generated for Providence by businesses susceptible to closures or fines, which the bill stipulates could be as high as $1 million a week. Nardone noted officials in the state’s largest city are likely concerned about what could be “a pretty big impact on their budget.”

“I know scrap metal is like a $1.5 billion industry in the state of Rhode Island,” Nardone said.

“I would argue you can’t put a price on the public health of the communities that are most impacted,” said Morales, who noted Mayor Jorge Elorza and other Providence officials are in discussions with affected businesses.

Housing Construction Act

The legislation (H6074) would create new energy-efficient, affordable housing units and generate renewable energy and construction jobs in a state currently facing a “mass housing crisis” coupled with COVID-19 and climate-change challenges, according to bill sponsor Rep. Brianna Henries, D-East Providence.

Since 2015, median home prices in Rhode Island have increased 75 percent, according to Henries. One in three Rhode Islanders spends more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing as the state faces a deficit of 22,000 low-income homes, she said.

“I believe that affordable housing is a right, plain and simple,” Henries said, adding that funding for the bill could be found in federal COVID-19 relief money provided to the state, which totals more than $1 billion.

“Housing is the number one issue that brings people into my organization right now,” said Pawtucket resident Shelby Mack, who works in social services and called in to support the bill. “It is the number one destabilizing force for vulnerable families in Rhode Island.”

The bill would create thousands of new affordable housing units for low- and middle-income families across the state. It would also bring Rhode Island closer to the carbon emissions and sustainability goals laid out in the Act on Climate bill passed in April, Henries said.

Emissions from “inefficient housing stock” make up 19 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Henries. To lower emissions, multifamily buildings would be built to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold ratings. Rooftops would be designed for maximum sunlight exposure and equipped with high-capacity rooftop photovoltaic solar panels.

Solar panels would be retrofitted onto existing housing units, with priority given to lower-income households. Large residential buildings would also face stricter efficiency requirements to be implemented by September 2023.

Henries said affordable housing poses an additional “economic opportunity” to create new jobs in renewable energy, and bring thousands of workers back into a housing construction industry depleted by the pandemic.

A housing jobs department, established by the bill as part of the Department of Administration, would oversee construction, sustainability measures and worker rights. It would also provide money to train workers and build partnerships with youth programs, according to the bill.

“This act addresses the multitude of crises our state faces,” Henries said.

Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty director David Veliz agreed, calling the bill a “win-win concept” that would tackle housing insecurity, unemployment and climate change in one fell swoop.

“We have a moral obligation to address inequality in our society,” Veliz testified. “We cannot wait any longer while people struggle to make basic needs.”

Food Security and Agricultural Jobs Act
The legislation (H5955) would take a ground-up approach to the state’s food insecurity crisis – a crisis that, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, affects one in four households.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, would increase access to fresh produce while increasing local growing capacity and sustainable agricultural jobs. Farming in Rhode Island has dropped dramatically in the past century, according to the bill.

Today, about 90 percent of food consumed in New England is grown outside the region. The bill would “unhook” Rhode Island from global trends, Felix said.

The bill would establish a trifecta of programs, identified as separate acts within the bill, to be overseen by a new agricultural jobs bureau under the control of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture.

Under the Regenerative Agriculture Program Act, the bureau would incentivize sustainable farming practices that minimize the use of chemicals, over-tilling and monoculture farming. It would also support fair wages and health benefits for workers and establish a grant program for regenerative farmers.

The Garden Agriculture Act would foster small-scale local food production by providing grantees with the tools, soil, seeds and instructional guidance necessary to grow personal organic gardens.

The Community Agriculture Act would provide $500,000 to $1 million in start-up funds for cooperative-led community gardens committed to growing high-nutrient, locally distributed foods.

As a whole, Felix said the legislation eliminates state dependence on large agriculture corporations. Those companies “exploit their laborers, degrade the environment, and produce food with low-quality nutritional value that must be shipped to Rhode Island through carbon-intensive supply chains,” according to the act.

“This is my favorite bill of the year,” Providence resident Angel Lopez testified. “The language is simple and direct, and even the money seems right.”

“This Agricultural Jobs Act would bring people together,” Alexandria Gonzalez said. “It would give people a shot at life.”

The proposed programs are estimated to cost $75 million annually, or less than 1 percent of the state’s annual budget. Funding could be acquired through increased taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of residents or the legalization of marijuana, which could generate $177 million and $41 million, respectively, Felix said.

Thomas Landry, a health-care clinician and educator who works in Woonsocket public schools, said the Food Security and Agricultural Jobs Act could turn the tables for students in the state’s urban core who have been impacted by food deserts and an inability to access fresh produce.

“Passage of this bill is essential to support Rhode Island families and the environment in which we live,” Landry said.

John Lee told the committee he comes from a low-income household where healthy food was “rarely available.” He was recently diagnosed as prediabetic.

“We need the Rescue Rhode Island Act to ensure that all people have access to nutritious locally produced food, regardless of their economic standing,” he said.

Alan McLeod pressed committee members to support the three bills to address the “real issues” facing Rhode Island’s most disenfranchised people.

“If you do not pass it now people will continue to be food insecure, to go without housing and to breath polluted air and drink polluted water,” he said. “This is your chance to act, and if you don’t, nothing changes.”

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