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How New York rolls out climate funding is top priority for its most vulnerable

A grant from New York’s new climate change fund could be a gamechanger for a group like Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, a Long Island nonprofit set up by six Indigenous women to clean local waterways by growing seaweed.

And they ought to be in luck: fully a third of the $4.2 billion New York voters approved in a referendum last year to fight climate change is earmarked to go to “disadvantaged” communities like the Shinnecock tribe.

But before a single dollar is spent, the state is already running into challenges in figuring out a way to ensure the money is distributed equitably.

For instance, the way the law is written, a tiny nonprofit like the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers fear they could have exactly the same grant eligibility as close neighbors like the wealthy Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, a private club where it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a member.

“There's certainly no disadvantage,” said Tela Troge, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, a federally recognized tribe surrounded by immense wealth in the Hamptons. “And the way that the law is structured means that these folks can very easily capitalize and gain access to resources that are meant to help the people who have actually been disadvantaged.”

“It's nothing new to us; It's always kind of been the way it is,” Troge added.

Research has shown that certain populations, particularly low-income and communities of color, shoulder a disproportionate burden of the impacts from climate change, such as land, water, and air pollution, extreme heat, cold, and weather, and lack of access to open space.

Known as the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, the spending package sets aside billions for environmental and community projects. At least 35% of spending from the Bond Act funding must benefit so-called “disadvantaged communities,” a designation created by a state working group earlier this year for areas that are experiencing significant negative effects from climate change.

Josh’s graphic

But these are the very communities that also historically lack access to the avenues to obtain funding. They have less representation in government, lack civic power and often struggle to prove financial sustainability by traditional measures. People in these communities fear that these obstacles, combined with an overwhelming application process could mean money will instead land in the wrong hands.

In addition, “disadvantaged” communities have been identified under the new law by census tract, which, because of socio-economic anomalies, sometimes see extreme wealth neighboring significant poverty.

As part of its “Sound Science” series, WSHU held community conversations this summer to foster dialogue between people and scientific institutions, instead of politicians or pundits, to talk about the impact of climate change in their neighborhoods — and to explore how this cash injection may create change.

“Disadvantaged” communities

Under state finance law, the new funding cannot go directly to individual New Yorkers. The money is intended for municipalities and nonprofit organizations.

“So, there may conceivably be programs, projects that a nonprofit or municipality would undertake, that could do the type of work” to address the needs of a community, said Patrick Foster, New York City regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

This summer, Foster participated in listening sessions the state agency held across New York to “provide information on a once-in-generation funding opportunities” through the state Environmental Bond Act, and relevant federal funding.

 “We are really hearing from around the state, this question of ability to apply for funds and looking at how we can remove obstacles for communities to apply successfully for projects that are really needed in their community,” Suzannah Randall, chief resiliency officer at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told New Yorkers during a state listening session in August.

The state used 45 indicators to identify and make a map of disadvantaged communities, including environmental burdens, and climate change risks, but also existing stressors that exacerbate the burdens to these neighborhoods, including socio-economic and demographic factors, such as age, race, income and health vulnerabilities.

The communities are organized by U.S. census tract. And it’s that framing that has seen the Shinnecock tribe potentially put on the exact same footing as their wealthy Hamptons neighbors. Troge’s nonprofit, the tribal council and the rest of their census tract that includes the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course could be vying for similar funding.

“I mean, it's essentially meaningless,” Troge said. “It's nice to be acknowledged that we face disadvantages; Has there been any truth and reconciliation into why that is? I don't think so.”

To Troge, any future application for funds will be an even bigger lift for Shinnecock Kelp Farmers. While the organization has teamed up with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Hampton Bays to help with the start-up and sustainability, this is a part-time venture that relies on private donors and volunteers.

If you are respecting sovereignty, then sovereignty is in this sense of strength, sovereignty is the tribal land. Our communities are going to be or could be swallowed in this process.”
Monique Fitzgerald, who identifies as Setalcott

Like other New Yorkers, the tribe of nearly 1,600 people — about half living on its territory in Southampton — will begin to pore over these sessions and new grant proposals from the state to determine which projects they can apply to. Tribal governments and organizations are eligible, but not individuals, just like elsewhere in the state.

While many were included in the disadvantaged communities criteria, Indigenous community members on Long Island say the designation fails to acknowledge their sovereignty by distinguishing between the tribe's territory and the census tract they are in. “So not only were, like, extremely wealthy communities included, actual disadvantaged communities were left out,” Troge said. “Good job, New York State!”

Census consensus

Every 10 years, the nationwide census count is taken to determine the number of members each state gets to the U.S. House of Representatives — but also to steer funding based on population, demographics and needs.

Andrew Reamer, a longtime researcher on census-guided funding working at George Washington University's Institute of Public Policy, said for almost a century the government has set up programs to allocate federal financial assistance grants — intended for states, cities, counties, nonprofits, or households — based on data generated by the Census Bureau. Businesses, typically from low-income communities, obtain low-interest loans that they have to pay back, instead of grants.

While everything stems from the decennial count, it's typically the bureau’s five-year American Community Survey and then indicators provided by other federal agencies, including the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, or Health and Human Services, that steers funding across the country.

“We could not run our society without the census."
Andrew Reamer

It’s the job of the bureau’s Office of the Inspector General to make sure the money is being spent correctly once the money arrives at the local government. Reamer also said that the spending formulas are public so that “anyone could kind of sit down and work them out.”

“It’s not hidden,” he added. But Reamer acknowledged historically undercounted groups might not trust the data itself.

Even as late as 1990, the census estimated that the Black undercount was 5%. In other words, for every 19 Black people, they were missing one. (“That's a lot,” Reamer said.) The white undercount, it was around 1%, or one out of 100.

Troge, from the Shinnecock tribe, points to instructions for census takers from the 1920s and 1930s. According to the Census Bureau, field representatives were allowed to use their judgment to identify ethnicities and races of people. Troge said that information was then “used to divest people of their land, their resources, and their ability to participate in certain social institutions.”

More recent disputes over whether a person’s citizenship status should be included on the census has further distanced communities of color from an accurate count.

Monique Fitzgerald, of North Bellport, said many of her Black and Latino neighbors have disappeared in the latest census. “And that's just 2020. So we don't even know what happened with COVID,” she said. “What is happening to us? Are we getting better through this process? Or is it that you've already killed us off?”

Her community sits on a toxic plume of emerging contaminants from decades of pollution emanating from the nearby Brookhaven Landfill. The state map using the census tracts does not identify her community clearly: it is listed as Brookhaven — named for the larger township — instead of the specific neighborhood of North Bellport, immediately bordering the landfill. Fitzgerald and her neighborhood have been fighting for years to close the facility. The town has refused to meet with them.

Reamer said the legacy of the census means there will “always and forever” be historically undercounted groups — and that would be reflected in the amount of funding a community receives based on the census.

New Yorkers had the opportunity to make comments before the disadvantaged community map for the distribution of climate change funds was finalized earlier this year. But many say the eventual outcome failed to reflect any of the criticisms that were voiced at that time. “So that's why it was so disheartening. When our voices weren't heard at all, basically, when we commented [in hours of testimony to the state] on how these designations should be made,” Troge said.

Rethinking funding models

And there’s a lot at stake.

An independent study by nonprofit Rebuild by Design of the employment effects of the Bond Act estimated that the initiative will support more than $8.7 billion in capital project spending and 84,000 jobs. As Bond Act investments are made, there is “an additive or a ripple effect to the economy,” said Barbara Rice, the executive director of the state’s Adirondack Park Agency.

Rice points to direct impacts from spending on a capital project, for example, direct jobs from like a waterfront revitalization project. But there are also indirect impacts from funds going to suppliers, providing materials and equipment for the project, who in turn, can grow and hire more workers, who contribute to the economy.

The legislation also requires state agencies or municipalities receiving over $25 million of Bond Act funding for projects costing more than $50 million to use apprenticeship agreements. It will encourage project labor agreements and labor peace agreements.

Instead of municipalities, SUNY Chancellor John King called for funding to be directed to public schools — mostly state universities and colleges, but he acknowledged a well-resourced school district could do the same — to help ensure equity goes directly into affected communities.

“Certainly some of our SUNY locations are in places that have had a disproportionate impact from pollution and bad choices that we've made as a society around the environment,” he said, pointing to the state Environmental Science and Forestry School in downtown Syracuse, which is a community that has been harmed by environmental injustice.

Since about 40% of the state's public buildings are at SUNY, King said investing in campuses will help the state hit its net-zero carbon emissions goal. In addition, new education spaces are already opening for climate job training in low-income and communities of color, including Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood. Farmingdale State College has started an offshore wind institute. SUNY Binghamton is working on battery storage technology. Stony Brook University is building a $700 million climate institute on Governors Island.

“We want to make sure that our campuses are preparing young people who will contribute to solving these problems for our society,” King said. “So there's a physical manifestation of addressing equity issues in terms of investing in our campuses.”

For members of the communities identified as disadvantaged, there is still a problem of trust. “This whole idea of labeling us as some way to target effort is, in and of itself, ineffective. What really has to happen is a real discussion about life and the inequalities of being Black in Suffolk County,” Nicole Jean Christian, chair of environmental justice and climate change at the Brookhaven NAACP.

A map of 85 disadvantaged communities on Long Island, part of over 1,700 localities marked for extra state funding to fight climate change.
New York State Climate Justice Working Group
A map of 85 disadvantaged communities on Long Island, part of over 1,700 localities marked for extra state funding to fight climate change.

“Communities are not disadvantaged; they have lived experiences,” Christian said. “I say, ‘communities that have disadvantaged experiences.’ So folks that have disadvantaged experiences have to be aware and be clear on what the purpose is for you to be able to build trust, I think, is important.”

Christian is from Gordon Heights, which is one of more than 85 communities identified on Long Island. She has spent the better part of her career trying to empower Black-owned businesses on their main street as president emeritus of the local chamber of commerce — a job that got harder during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to speak human. Labels mean nothing to us."
Nicole Jean Christian

In 2020, a Stanford analysis of census data shows 40% of all Black-owned businesses in the U.S. closed their doors in the first few months of lockdowns, and many for reasons that existed far before any health crisis. Namely, Black owners have historically been denied loans more than any other racial group, including billions of dollars in pandemic relief.

Christian and others are concerned that the state will fund climate resiliency the same way it rolls out its Community Development Block Grants.

This allows small cities, towns, and villages, as well as unincorporated areas of some counties, to apply on behalf of the business seeking funding. Money goes directly to the applicant and not directly to businesses.

“[Politicians] get that money diverted to them for their pet projects. Not for our kids, not for our community, not for our environment — it goes to them,” said Matt Ballard, who used to coordinate the Shinnecock tribe’s brownfield sites. “They have all the time and money and resources in the world [to apply] … And they know that we don't have those resources to fight that battle and live. So they're going to do everything in their power to throw roadblocks up in the way.”

As an alternative, advocates point to another type of funding model that is used in the Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants within the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

The $3 billion nationwide program is available only to a different grouping of disadvantaged communities to design their own pollution reduction and clean energy investment. Nonprofit organizations are allowed to apply for these so-called “change grants” on their behalf to develop a community-level project design and implementation (instead of a utility, business, state, or local government making the decisions on which projects matter most). Applications are expected to open later this month — and funding is expected to go fast.

“The community-based organization is going to be able to do the heavy lifting,” said Alvaro Sanchez, vice president of policy at The Greenlining Institute, a Oakland-based community development nonprofit that explores policy and equity in climate spending.

“This program doesn't say local government doesn't have a place in pursuing these resources. In fact, they have to be a partner,” he added. “But I think it's a more inclusive way to participate in community development, than the way that we've traditionally done the work.”

Sanchez said the federal program mirrors a decade-old initiative in California. For 10 years, the state has spent a minimum of 35% of revenue from cap-and trade — a limit on the amount of greenhouse gases that businesses and institutions can emit without penalties — on disadvantaged communities, which are similarly designated by the state and use census tracts.

Local governments with these communities are required to also adopt environmental justice plans. As of last November, more than $6.7 billion has been spent on low-income and vulnerable communities.

“Let's say a community wants to invest in renewable energy, green infrastructure, transit, and affordable housing: usually you'd have to go to different sources of funding to achieve that kind of investment,” he said. “What these grants are seeking to do is to create a one-stop-shop for those kinds of resources. So that the applicants just have to identify the strategies that they want to advance in their communities, and not necessarily have to silo their approaches based on the funding eligibility for the projects that they're choosing.”

The federal change grant will also provide funding to establish regional technical assistance providers to offset the cost for nonprofit organizations that are helping grassroots organizations work through the process of applying.

More than a dozen states, including New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have developed their own environmental justice screening tools, using CalEnviroScreen as a model. In November 2022, the Council on Environmental Quality as part of President Biden’s Justice40 initiative released the federal Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool.

“However, one of the things that we're also learning is that once the money hits the census tract, it's actually hard to determine who is ultimately the beneficiary of the money whether an individual, a business or a worker,” Sanchez said, noting the money can be pinpointed by the applicant to a five square mile radius.

Advocates say a more empowering way would be to give communities the direct power to decide how the money is used.

For example, the Boston Ujima Project is a member-run organization that allows its community of color to vote directly on how funding for infrastructure is spent. The group accepts philanthropic donations and applies for grant money that is voted on by its membership. The money can be directed into financial institutions for its dollars to grow before the group provides its membership with localized grants and other individual funding opportunities.

The money at play

The next phase of New York’s Environmental Bond Act is already underway, with project ideas being solicited to gauge the interests and needs of communities. The Hochul administration said in a statement that there will be “ongoing opportunities for the public to comment on guidelines for existing or new programs to distribute funding.”

For example, the state had rolled out an online survey, concluding Sept. 15, to collect hundreds of potential project ideas from municipalities, community-based organizations, and other eligible New Yorkers.

A lifeline for New Yorkers and other unincorporated groups may be working with a nonprofit organization, known as a fiscal sponsor, who can apply on their behalf.

Communities are already planning ways to have a competitive edge when applying for funding. The first round of $200 million from the Bond Act was released earlier this summer alongside other state water infrastructure funding to help communities hit hard by flooding in July. Applications are still being reviewed.

Suzannah Randall, chief resiliency officer at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the process should “remove obstacles for communities to apply successfully for projects that are really needed in their community.”

“Certainly folks who have successfully kind of mobilized to tee up for funding before having an idea or have a real project that they've developed, maybe kind of ready to jump in if something is announced,” Randall said.

Throughout the state, many of the New Yorkers who participated in the listening sessions requested technical support or additional assistance in applying for projects, noting that some smaller communities or organizations might not have the capacity or the knowledge to apply for these grants.

“I think it's something we have to do in order to assist communities in applying, but also assist communities and getting set up to apply for funds, be it from the state or the or the federal government,” said James Tierney, the deputy commissioner for Water Resources at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We haven't thrashed out exactly how the technical assistance will work,” he added.

Tierney points to the example of how the state Environmental Facilities Corporation helps applicants through clean water infrastructure initiatives by implementing “community assistance teams”, which he said “walks people through the process of applying for grants, and understanding the complexities, the acronyms, and the requirements of an effective grant application.”

“It's very likely we'll have something exactly like that associated with the Bond Act as it rolls forward,” he added.

The goal is to set up to help small nonprofits and local governments apply through a consolidated funding application for entrants who want to be considered for multiple sources of funding for a project by filling out just one application.

“At this stage, we're looking at the criteria and trying to figure out what's the best way to deliver funds out to projects to benefit New Yorkers at this time,” Randall said.

And for those who are successful, there could be even more money at play.

The technical assistance and finally obtaining Bond Act funding could give municipalities and nonprofits access to additional federal dollars through the Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS Act, and bipartisan infrastructure law.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.