NEWS

Rotary Club hears how $300M Rescue RI Act addresses environmental, social justice

By ARDEN BASTIA
Posted 4/1/21

By ARDEN BASTIA Rescue Rhode Island, a grassroots coalition, is proposing a $300 million legislative package that will tackle some of the state's most pressing issues, including housing, carbon emissions and food accessibility. During the Warwick Rotary

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Rotary Club hears how $300M Rescue RI Act addresses environmental, social justice

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Rescue Rhode Island, a grassroots coalition, is proposing a $300 million legislative package that will tackle some of the state’s most pressing issues, including housing, carbon emissions and food accessibility.

During the Warwick Rotary Club meeting last Thursday, Emma Bouton, an organizer with Renew Rhode Island and the Sunrise Movement, spoke about the Rescue Rhode Island Act, which is designed to create jobs, advance racial justice, promote economic fairness and “begin the transformations we need for a sustainable future where every Rhode Islander has housing and food and clean air and water.”

Renew Rhode Island is a growing coalition of over 150 grassroots organizations, including frontline communities, labor unions, Indigenous tribes, environmental justice advocates, youth groups and racial justice organizations. The coalition is working both locally and regionally to tackle New England’s interconnected crises – mass unemployment, racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

Bouton graduated from Brown University in 2020, receiving a Sc.B. in environmental science. She is a researcher at Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab, and is also involved with HOPE, or Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, an organization that serves Providence communities by addressing structural issues surrounding homelessness.

The Rescue Rhode Island Act was developed through a yearlong process within the coalition led by Bouton and Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Port Authority.

The act is a package of three bills that targets green housing, sustainably produced food, as well as clean air and water.

“We know how deeply tied together these problems are, and how impossible it really is to address one without addressing all of the others. Our legislation works on them simultaneously,” Bouton said.

Three bills in the package

The first part of the Renew Rhode Island Act focuses on housing.

“Rhode Island has a really severe shortage of affordable homes,” Bouton said during Thursday’s meeting. “Even before the COVID-induced economic recession, over 22 percent of the renters in our state were severely cost burdened, meaning that they were paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent. And this housing affordability crisis is particularly severe in Black and Brown communities across the state.”

Bouton said housing accounts for 19 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely because homes in the state are not sufficiently energy efficient and are not equipped with rooftop solar.

To tackle the housing crisis, Renew Rhode Island proposes the Housing Jobs Construction Program, which will build thousands of high-quality, energy-efficient residential apartments across the state and equip the buildings with rooftop solar panels. These apartments would be available to low- and middle-income families, and residents will not be charged more than 20 percent of their income on rent.

“Another crucial factor contributing to our state’s housing crisis is the rising costs of utilities, with low-income residents across the state facing utility shutoffs,” Bouton said. To reduce utility bills and carbon emissions, Renew RI is proposing to launch the Solar Jobs Program, which will install rooftop solar panels for free on tens of thousands of apartment buildings.

She said the Housing Jobs Program and Solar Jobs Program would create thousands of new jobs across the state, all protected by Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which will ensure that all workers employed by these programs receive fair wages and high quality benefits through collective bargaining. All jobs created under the Rescue Rhode Island Act will meet or exceed the prevailing industry wage, paying no less than $15 per hour, and will provide health care, paid sick leave, and strong workplace safety standards. Because the act is a decade long plan, the jobs created “will be steady and long-term, providing workers with stable and reliable salaries going forward,” according to Renew RI.

Additionally, PLAs will create opportunities for labor unions to establish and fund job apprenticeship programs. Companies that bid on projects under the Housing Construction Program and the Solar Jobs Program will be required to use equitable hiring practices, ensuring that Black and brown workers and women workers do not face employment discrimination.

According to Bouton, the housing legislation will “strengthen tenant protections banning no cause evictions and prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who receive federal housing assistance.”

Renew Rhode Island plans to spend $200 million each year for the rest of the decade to fund these housing programs.

Food production

The second piece of legislation in the Rescue Rhode Island Act targets food production and accessibility.

“The overwhelming majority of food consumed in our state is produced by giant, industrialized agricultural firms that degrade and environment and exploit vulnerable workers,” Bouton said. “This food is then shipped into Rhode Island through highly carbon-intensive supply chains, accelerating the climate crisis. This current system is failing to adequately feed all the people in our state with one quarter of Rhode Island households right now struggling to afford food. Our coalition believes we need a new food system, one that revolves around localized, really sustainable agriculture production, Fair Labor Standards, and a fundamental right to enjoyable and nutritious food.”

The Rescue Rhode Island Act proposes redesigning the state’s food systems, beginning with a network of urban community gardens and land trusts throughout the state that will pay workers fair wages to produce local food in ecologically sustainable ways. These community trusts will be democratically controlled by their local communities, which will decide what kinds of food to grow and how to distribute it.

Funding to establish new community land trusts will be directed toward low- and middle-income communities. Renew Rhode Island also plans to provide subsidies to local farms that adopt or continue to use regenerative agricultural practices, reducing the use of poisonous chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers “while simultaneously improving soil health and sequestering carbon in the ground,” Bouton said.

The bill includes the Ecosystem Restoration Program to rehabilitate damaged forests, fields, coastlines and wetlands, increasing the state’s resilience to extreme weather and events.

The estimated cost to fund these food programs is $75 million per year.

Clean water & air

The final piece of the Rescue Rhode Island Act focuses on clean air and water by enacting the Green Justice Zone Program, which will protect marginalized communities from corporate polluters and fund long-overdue environmental remediation projects.

“This idea really builds upon a lot of the work being done by the racial and environmental justice committee of Providence to implement two Green Justice Zones within the city. This proposal would add additional funding to this work and use the power of the state to be able to pick out polluting industries within the zone,” Bouton said.

The first Green Justice Zone will encompass Washington Park and the South Side of Providence, one of the most severely polluted areas in the entire state. According to the EPA, residents of this neighborhood are currently exposed to exceptionally high levels of dangerous pollutants, including particulate matter, hazardous waste, and toxic air contaminants.

In response, the Rescue Rhode Island Act proposes dismantling pollution-intensive facilities, such as petroleum refineries and hazardous waste storage sites in the Green Justice Zone. Funding will also be provided for environmental remediation projects within the zone, such as replacing lead pipes and installing air filtration systems in homes. Zone residents will get to choose, through a local referendum, which environmental remediation projects to prioritize.

Polluting industries will be required to obtain a new license, known as a Green Justice Zone Permit, to continue operating after Dec. 1, 2022. The Green Justice Zone board that issues the license is instructed to deny Green Justice Zone Permits to a specific list of facilities that pollute the air and water. Zone residents will be able to elect members of the board through a special election.

Within the Department of Labor and Training (DLT), a Just Transition Program will be created, with the goal of providing free job retraining and apprenticeship programs. The jobs created through this program will be given primarily to zone residents and to individuals who are currently employed by pollution-intensive industries within the zone that will be forced to move or shut down. The DLT will give all workers who work at polluting facilities within the zone a Just Transition Salary, which will provide them with the equivalent of their current salary and benefits for two years after they lose their job. Workers who receive retraining through the Just Transition Program will have priority access to the jobs created in the housing construction and solar installation programs.

Renew Rhode Island intends to spend $25 million per year for the rest of the decade to fund the Green Justice Zone program.

Proposals for funding

The total annual investment of the legislative package is $300 million, or about 2 percent of the state’s budget.

“We have a variety of idea and proposals for how the state could pay,” said Bouton. “The Biden administration just passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan that we know is going to bring around $1.1 billion to Rhode Island, so we’re definitely making a case for using some of that federal funding to meet people’s most urgent needs for housing and food.”

The coalition is also advocating for a tax on the top 1 percent of Rhode Islanders. The richest 1 percent in the state, those that make more than $467,000 per year, pay a lower percentage of their income in state and local taxes than everyone else in the state, according to Renew Rhode Island. By raising the top marginal tax rate by only 5 percent on the richest 1 percent, the state can generate more than $170 million per year. Raising taxes on high-end real estate transactions by 1.5 percent would generate an additional $34.3 million per year.

Other suggestions for funding include releasing all incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders and a legalization of recreation marijuana, which together would generate $76.5 million each year.

“At only 2 percent of the state’ budget, funding the Rescue Rhode Island Act is simply about getting our priorities straight, and ranking people’s basic needs as a top priority,” Bouton said.

The rescue Rhode Island Act went before the Senate on March 15, where over 100 people testified in support of the housing and Green Justice Zone bills, and on March 17, where over 75 people testified in support of the food bill.

While Bouton doesn’t have a date for the act to go before the House, she says Renew Rhode Island “will certainly be mobilizing members of the community to testify again.” In the meantime, she said, the group will “continue building momentum for the bills by speaking to members of the public across the state about how the legislation would impact their lives, and where their own legislators stand on supporting the bills.”

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