In West Buffalo, a Community Learns to Own its Power

PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing) has been working since 2005 to create affordable and sustainable green housing and jobs in the West Side of Buffalo.  Next month, the organization will open the doors on its largest project yet: School 77, a community center featuring thirty apartments for local seniors who bring home low and moderate incomes. 

After successfully organizing the community to accept only community focused site redevelopment proposals rather than proposals for profit-driven, gated luxury housing, PUSH Buffalo turned its attention to revitalizing this important neighborhood anchor. The site features several green innovations, including a rooftop solar array that will provide low-cost energy to School 77 residents.  Groundswell became involved in the project as a technical advisor in the design of a subscriber management program for solar energy produced on the rooftop. Among the priorities for local residents were affordability, equity, and predictability.

Groundswell caught up with PUSH leader Sage Green and Board President Maxine Murphy to discuss the project and how the organization grounds its work in amplifying and relying on the voices of the community.

On partnering with Groundswell to turn a vacant middle school into a green zone for Buffalo’s West End residents.

SAGE: Here at PUSH Buffalo, we work across sectors, from progressive affordable housing development and advocacy, to energy efficiency policy advocacy, to campaigns to support policing accountability and immigrants’ rights, to cultural arts initiatives and others to build a resilient community on the West Side of Buffalo in particular, but also city- and region-wide. In a big way recently we’ve invested in renewable energy development and especially equitable renewable energy development.

The project we’re working on this summer (and how we came into contact with Groundswell as a leader in this field) is a community-distributed solar array on an affordable housing development that we are doing on the west side. It’s the largest affordable housing project we’ve done so far: a $15 million project with 30 senior apartments on the second and third floors of an old middle school (formerly Buffalo Public School 77) that developers were looking to make into market-rate housing or luxury housing.

We were able to organize a community campaign to acquire the building and make it into what we wanted (with funding from state and local Low Income Housing Tax Credits). The downstairs will be offices for nonprofits, and PUSH will be one of them, along with two other local activist theater groups.

On the roof of that project, there is now a 64 kW community-distributed solar array that will be owned and operated by PUSH Buffalo and sold to the tenants of the building at a much reduced savings compared to what they’d pay a utility company.

The revenue from this project and the management of this project will all be handled by a citizen advisory board. At the end of the first year of operation, we are planning to hold a participatory budgeting process for the tenants of the building to decide what to do with the revenue from the site. This is the kind of energy democracy that we are working to build and model in New York State. 

MAXINE: I was part of that first trailblazing meeting when we met with Gov. Pataki and clean energy campaigns were just getting started. And we have proceeded to expand our reach and complete new housing projects, energy efficiency projects, and now solar projects, such as School 77.

I’ve seen people’s gas and energy bills reduced, so that’s good news for me. But I’m especially excited about School 77 because it’s the kind of project by which we control our own destiny. It also provides jobs for our community, which is desperately in need of jobs.

SAGE: For all of our projects, we do a community benefits agreement with the developer to make sure they hire from our community first for as many jobs related to the project as possible.

On bringing elected officials to the table.

MAXINE: We have been involved in state level and local proceedings since day one at PUSH. When REV (Reforming the Energy Vision for New York), picked up in 2015, we were the first community group that went in to have a seat at the table so we could have input into what they were saying about our lives.

We went to Albany about three or four times and, finally, they recognized us as an integral part of this process. And we did it by continuing to knock on their doors, by running local campaigns that draw down the state level policy to our communities, and also bring community level needs up to state policy tables. People at the top are not used to people at the bottom being persistent and waiting there long enough to come in and have an intelligent conversation. We had an audience with them and they heard our input.

On prioritizing community involvement at every stage of a project.

SAGE: It’s easy to hope for technology solutions or some cool new model of thinking that are going to answer all the questions to make our communities resilient - especially when times are really hard. But, what we’ve learned in Buffalo is that those new technology solutions and theories of change only work if we fit them to the people and the place that we are in - there is no cookie cutter solution. We have so many of the the answers, insights, and resources on the ground where we live. Good development starts with investing in your people first. At PUSH, we work really hard to lift the voices of everyday people on the ground and create conditions where those people can recognize and then own their power to make decisions about the systems that impact them and their neighbors. It depends on the project or campaign or policy, but working to get people comfortable to sit at that table, ask for what they want, and make their own decisions about the future of their community is always the first step to making solutions that really work. 

MAXINE: Each community is different because they know what they need and live it. Nobody in power wants to give up their power without a struggle.

SAGE: Often times, community plans start with, “Hey, we’ll go out to talk to people and then we’ll go behind closed doors and do what we thought we heard them say.” When that plan comes out on the other side, unless you have those people with you to help you check your work as you’re going, you’re going to lose a lot of the insight and vision. Bring your leaders with you every step of the way - it’s worth it, we swear. And as you create a culture of working together and modeling the kind of energy democracy and transparency that we want to see in the world, you get more and more efficient at it.

On the direct impact of community investment and involvement.

SAGE: Often times, community planners will roll out a plan or project and it looks okay on paper so a community will let it go. But the communities we work with are empowered to monitor the actual short-and-long-term success of these initiatives. In land development, that looks like monitoring the cost of the rent in new housing developments to make sure that it is in line with the local communities affordability index. In energy development, that looks like tracking the impact of energy benefits and the efficiency of energy savings for the issues and resolutions that will make projects work in the long term. This kind of monitoring also creates the conditions where our community can learn, in a hands-on way, how this energy system works and use that knowledge to better support sustainable development. Working out the kinks as new technologies hit the ground, in community, transparently, is huge for community development. 

A lot of the assumptions that people make about what marginalized communities want regarding energy are made by people who have never experienced energy insecurity, who are not marginalized, who are not people of color. And those assumptions that then go in to building these programs are really toxic.

For our community-distributed energy work, there are a lot of people from outside of the community who say that as long as there are greenhouse gas savings or as long as it’s a little bit less than what someone would be paying otherwise, that’s good enough. And it doesn’t matter where that revenue is going. These are built on the assumption that poor people are only interested in saving money in the short term and that when it comes to GHG emission reductions, the ends always justify the means. In reality, the people we work with, who are many of the the people who have experienced the worst every insecurity both in Buffalo for decades, or in the countries they immigrated here from, will say that they want long-term structural changes that impact them and everyone around them to make a whole new system that works for people and the planet.

MAXINE: Exactly. There’s this prevailing idea that poor people will abuse the energy system if you give it to them. But cheap is just a Band-Aid. They want ways that their houses are using less energy. They want houses where their energy is not going out of windows and doors. They want equipment in their houses to function properly. They want the same thing any other community would want. But they have to fight for it harder and demand things a little different.

On what PUSH plans to tackle next.

SAGE: Our next project is all about supplying renewable energy to all of our properties and creating jobs that are top-to-bottom within the energy system, then governing the system so we can keep driving toward sustainability and affordability and then modeling that for the rest of the state.

We’re also very invested in redefining what “green jobs” means. Often “green jobs” translates into “men in hard hats on a construction site” and those are real, but so is subscriber management and marketing for these projects. Green jobs are building the energy sector, but they’re also any job that is not contributing negatively to climate change. This can include neighborhood child care or transportation platforms that are better for all workers. We want to implement projects that can ultimately sustain themselves and our community as a whole in the long run.

MAXINE:  We also want to focus on developing and promoting more geothermal efficiency.

SAGE: Heating problems are the biggest problem in this city. Winters in Buffalo are cold. No matter how much solar you have, you are not going to be able to heat your home with electric heat in any way that’s affordable or comfortable. Figuring out the geo-equation is really big for us.