November 12, 2013

By Richard Marcantonio 

Civil rights and environmental justice laws ensure that low-income communities and minority populations share fairly in the benefits of public policy and spending, and protect these populations from bearing a disproportionate share of burdens like pollution and displacement. But making the promise of those laws a reality remains challenging.

There are several reasons why. One is the lasting impact of decades of racialized public policy and investment priorities, like redlining, urban renewal and the federal highway system. The “persistence of the deep physical etching of race on the landscape and built environment” is discussed in an article I recently published with Professors Aaron Golub and Thomas Sanchez in Urban Geography.

But there’s another reason it has proven so hard to deliver a fair share of  public investment benefits to low-income communities of color: both research and public policy have generally done a poor job of being clear about what it means to benefit those communities. In large part, that’s because of the high level of resistance to the obvious approach: asking affected community members about their needs and priorities.

By itself, one criterion, clearly doesn’t work, at least when it comes to benefits like affordable housing and transit service: geography. Just because a project is located in a community doesn’t mean it benefits that community’s residents. A case in point: freeway construction through West Oakland during the era of urban renewal. Or BART’s half-billion-dollar Oakland Airport Connector project.

But the real question isn’t whether the community in which the project is located has a very high proportion of minority residents or a very high poverty rate. The real question is whether the project meets important needs identified by the residents of that community.

The question of what it means to truly benefit disadvantaged communities has taken on a new urgency, both in Sacramento and in the Bay Area. That’s because state law – SB 535 (de León 2012) – requires at least 25 percent of the Cap and Trade auction revenues generated by AB 32 to be spent on projects that provide benefits to disadvantaged communities. And in the Bay Area, 6 Wins Network advocacy was instrumental in amending Plan Bay Area to include Supervisor John Gioia’s language that will prioritize the region’s share of Cap and Trade revenue through an inclusive process. That amendment also requires “at least 25 percent of these revenues [to] be spent to benefit disadvantaged communities in the Bay Area.”

Through our participation in a statewide coalition that aims to implement SB 535’s promise faithfully, we helped develop principles that define the benefit to disadvantaged communities more meaningfully. That coalition had a positive impact on the state’s Investment Plan for Cap and Trade revenues, especially in the areas of transit operations and affordable housing. It has now signed on to a letter asking the Governor to commit to spending Cap and Trade revenues in his next budget, and to promptly repaying the half-billion dollars he borrowed in his current one.

At the same time, in our comments to the Air Resources Board on its draft AB 32 Scoping Plan, we emphasized three sets of needs: reducing toxic air emissions in overburdened communities; providing affordable housing and transit service, along with protections to strengthen low-income communities in the face of mounting displacement pressures; and ensuring that quality jobs, job training and living wages are part of the investment strategy.

Learning from the experience at the state level, and from the 6 Wins Network’s successful campaign of to improve Plan Bay Area, the Network and its allies have now weighed in with a set of principles we believe should govern the implementation of Supervisor Gioia’s amendment. Inclusiveness, transparency and accountability are at the top of the list, followed by the three sets of needs discussed in our Scoping Plan comments.

Each of these steps is part of a larger strategy to bring the voices and needs of disadvantaged communities to the table. After all, when it’s a matter of benefiting those communities, whose voice matters most?

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