The latest news from our New York City policy team…
New York City Council Passes Two Bills on Our 2020 Extreme Heat Policy Agenda
July 30, 2020
WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) applauds New York City Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn) for his leadership in authoring and securing passage of bill 1945a, which will require the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOH&MH) to measure heat-related illnesses and mortality by individual neighborhoods across New York City. In doing so, the City – and environmental justice advocates like WE ACT, which supported this legislation – will be able to more accurately track the impact of heat, the deadliest form of weather, on individual communities. This is critical because extreme heat has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color. For example, between 2000 and 2012, nearly half of New York’s heat-related deaths were Blacks/African Americans, despite the fact that they comprised less than 25-percent of the population.
WE ACT also applauds New York City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr. (D-Bronx) for his leadership in authoring and securing passage of bill 1960a, which will require New York City Emergency Management, in consultation with the NYCDOH&MH and the New York City Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, to develop and submit an annual plan on how the City will inform residents on the dangers of heat exposure, access to cooling, and how vulnerable populations can stay cool during heat-related emergencies. Due by May 15, 2021 and then every year thereafter, the plan would also include measures for large office buildings to reduce stress on the electric grid during the summer months.
“Without this legislation, it has been difficult to make the case for how heat is impacting the health of individual communities – data that is essential in shaping effective policies that safeguard our city’s most vulnerable – and for the City and organizations like ours to plan accordingly,” explained Sonal Jessel, WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s Policy & Advocacy Coordinator, who heads the nonprofit organization’s heat work. “It’s similar to the challenge we are facing with COVID-19, which is also killing people of color at disproportionate rates – twice that of white New Yorkers. If health impacts and mortality aren’t reported accurately, not only is it difficult to assess the threat we face but also hard to devise solutions to mitigate that threat. And without a comprehensive plan, updated annually, we will never be able to protect our most vulnerable communities from the increasing threat of extreme heat.”
For example, people living in these communities tend to be less energy secure, meaning that they are more likely to struggle to pay their utility bill, so the cost of owning and operating an air conditioner may be out of reach for them. Another factor is energy efficiency. Most are renters, with many living in affordable housing, and those apartments and buildings are often energy inefficient, meaning it costs more to both heat and cool them – compounding the energy insecurity of their tenants. And then there are the health inequities that plague these communities due to generations of systemic racism, resulting in higher rates of underlying conditions that leave people more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.
“This issue has taken on greater urgency during COVID-19,” added Jessel. “People are less likely to leave their apartments, even in the heat, and many of the options they would normally have – visiting someone who has air conditioning, going to a cooling center, or even congregating outside – are all considered high-risk behaviors during this pandemic.”
WE ACT would also like to thank the New York City Council for passing this legislation, and urge New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to sign it into law. We also urge the City to rethink its cooling center program and New York State to expand funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, which can help address energy insecurity and energy efficiency issues.
WE ACT Responds to New York City Mayor’s Heat Wave Plan to Protect Vulnerable New Yorkers
May 18, 2020
WE ACT has been working to address the disparate impacts of extreme heat on low-income communities and communities of color for years. And long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, we had been advocating for air conditioners and funding to operate them, the use of the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) to provide some of those funds, and improvements to the cooling centers to address the disproportionate health impacts of extreme heat events in our communities. to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s COVID-19 Heat Wave Plan to Protect Vulnerable New Yorkers.
In response to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s COVID-19 Heat Wave Plan to Protect Vulnerable New Yorkers, released on Friday, May 15, WE ACT made the following statement:
“We applaud New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for these steps to protect the city’s low-income seniors. Providing $55 million to purchase 74,000 air conditioners for New Yorkers who are 60 years old or older, have an income below 60 percent of the state median, and do not already own an air conditioner will help address a significant need as climate change continues to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves in our city, which could prove even deadlier if New Yorkers are asked to continue to remain indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sonal Jessel, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “And we also applaud New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo for providing $20 million of that funding through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, as well as the New York City Housing Authority for contributing $10 million, with 22,000 of those air conditioners earmarked for its tenants.
“However, this plan fails to protect New Yorkers under 60 who live in low-income communities and communities of color, especially those with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to the health impacts of extreme heat. This is a health equity issue that must be addressed. Between 2000 and 2012, nearly half of New York’s heat-related deaths were African Americans, despite the fact that they comprise less than 25-percent of the population. These are many of the same underlying conditions that have contributed to higher COVID-19 mortality rates in these communities, with the virus killing people of color at twice the rate of white New Yorkers.
“In addition, it is essential that the Public Service Commission (PSC), which the City has petitioned to provide $72 million to help pay the utility bills of 450,000 vulnerable New Yorkers as part of this plan, comes through with those funds. People of color and low-income people pay a disproportionately higher percentage of their household income on energy, and the added expense of running an air conditioner could – despite it being a health necessity, particularly during the summer of COVID-19 – force those living paycheck-to-paycheck to decide between paying the utility bill or purchasing food or medicine. That is why, in addition to the PSC funds, it is imperative that the State designate HEAP funds for cooling and that the federal government increase funding for this national program, which is something our Federal Policy Office is working to advance.
“Finally, the City needs to do a better job of informing these communities about the availability and location of cooling centers as well as improve the way they are operated. In 2019, WE ACT’s members audited all of the cooling centers in Northern Manhattan and identified three areas of that need improvement: 1) the quality and condition of the sites; 2) staff communication and training; and 3) signage and information about the sites. This has become even more critical as the summer’s heat waves approach and the State’s COVID-19 PAUSE remains in effect.
“We will continue to work with the Mayor, City Council, Governor, State Senate and Assembly, and fellow advocacy groups to ensure that all vulnerable New Yorkers are protected from extreme heat events this summer. Low-income communities and communities of color have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They deserve to be protected from the ravages of climate change.”
WE ACT Testifies in Support of the Renewable Rikers Act
January 29, 2020
Read the Release