From Efficiency to Advocacy: Promoting Low-Income Green Housing in Worcester, Massachusetts

Audrey Irvine-Broque

Commonwealth/Worcester Green Low-Income Housing Coalition aims to introduce changes and best practices into the fabric of housing and other opportunities for homeless people. They are currently working on a “Green Homes for the Homeless” campaign to ensure the antiquated shelter and housing stock in greater Worcester takes advantage of multiple efficiency and energy programs, alleviating the stress on housing and program dollars, while also reducing the carbon footprint of the social service housing stock. Grassroots Fund spoke to Dave McMahon, one of their founders, to learn more.

So first off, I’m curious how your organization formed, and why you choose to focus on this issue?

Our group got together as a result of some experiences we had in the homeless community in Worcester. Worcester is New England’s second-largest community, and during the last economic downturn [in 2008] we saw a lot of different things. We saw curtailed foundation giving, dried up government funds, and a sort of retreat from private giving. It was really devastating to the social safety net that serves low-income people in our community.

So we started to play around with clean energy programs - every kind we could think of - as a tool. First, just to lower utility costs so that those funds that we were using for utilities would be freed up to help people with services and housing. We have worked with all kinds of different programs over the course of several years. And we were able to track our outputs to show that investments in solar energy, insulation, passive means of reducing energy consumption, were a positive net gain for the agencies involved.

While our group formed to show other agencies that investments in clean energy are good for these agencies, along the way we got very involved in the advocacy aspects of that work. We have a group of people who have been low-income, who have lived in homeless shelters or housing programs, and they advocate, chair commissions, and be a part of the committees that look at solar in our state.

There’s sometimes a perception that only rich people can have solar panels or only rich people have time to take steps that show they care about the environment. Do you see this come up in your work?

There is still an emphasis on building these giant solar farms that aren’t really accessed by low-income renters or people who can see the benefits of solar. It’s still tilted towards people of means. But one of the things our group does well is to be a part of that conversation. So, with policy-makers, we meet, we share stories of people who are impacted, and that’s always a way to get people’s hearts: to explain the impacts.

Our group has been involved over the years with everything from the Governor’s Affordable Access to Clean and Efficient Energy Program to, most recently, being named as a part of the Global Warming Solutions Advisory Committee, so we meet in Boston and help design the state’s legally mandated response to global warming. There’s a recognition that we need to be including programming for low-income people if we’re going to succeed, especially on the housing side, which still accounts for a large portion of our carbon outputs.

In the low-income sector, there’s such a focus on the emergency, crisis and needs that people face in our communities, that it’s hard to grasp the longer-term benefits of great energy efficiency and combating climate change. So this will be a long process, to get agencies on board.

I’m curious about how the recent excitement around the Green New Deal has landed for you, given the work you do.

I think we’ve always been ahead of the curve in Massachusetts. We’re the #1 state for energy efficiency. We’re up there in terms of solar. The Green New Deal, I think it’s a great way to reemphasize the importance of dealing with climate change and the link between the need for clean energy programs and good jobs in this country.

As a grant reader, I’ve noticed that there are some groups picking up on that terminology and it’s heartening. It’s definitely brought the importance of addressing our climate change issues to the forefront, and the clock is ticking.

Yes, so you’ve been both a grantee of the Grassroots Fund’s Grow grant and a grant reader, which means you also help weigh in on our grantmaking decisions and provide feedback through our participatory process. What has that experience been like?

As a reader, it’s just fascinating to hear all the ideas that are out there. I enjoy hearing what other groups are up to, whether it’s people trying to protect the oceanfront or do community garden work. So that part is really fun.

The hardest part of being a reader is just trying to remember the principles and try to use them as a lens by which you are viewing the application so that you're not too harsh on some of these great ideas that might not be articulated in the typical grant language. So it’s been a great a process to be a part of, and also great just to be linked into what’s happening across New England.

You also participated as a Planning Committee member for our Rootskills conference in Worcester last year. As we gear up for our Spring Rootskills workshop in Brattleboro, are there any perspectives you’d like to offer those considering attending or getting involved?

Well, we get so caught up in our work that you don’t often have the time to connect with other people that are engaged in similar work, so it’s refreshing to have a platform that’s organized, and has opportunities to network with other folks in other regions and find out what they are up to. From the planning perspective, it’s a hard thing to get environmentalists to agree on something. So I thought it was a really well-organized platform for doing that and making sure that voices were heard. The diversity and inclusion piece was important for that. And I was glad that it was articulated carefully, and that it was a slow process that allowed everyone to be involved.

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