Pushing for sustainability on the West Side
Photos by kc kratt
When he moved to Buffalo’s West Side, Bob Jahnke first lived in an apartment on Niagara Street. Owned by an absentee out-of-state landlord, the property ended up on the foreclosure list and Jahnke was evicted. Next, he moved to West Utica where, in exchange for the first few months’ rent, he cleaned the apartment and patched the windows.
“It was a crack house, basically. I couldn’t believe it,” says Jahnke, who stayed there for a couple years. At the same time, he was volunteering with People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo, a community organization that fights to make affordable housing a reality for every person in Buffalo. He started by donating tools to a project and, since then, has participated in several aspects of PUSH’s work, such as inspecting and evaluating abandoned homes for potential reuse and organizing around various campaigns. Most recently, he participated in the Energy Democracy campaign, which emphasizes community-based deployment of clean energy programs and diversification of energy sources.
Through his volunteer work, Jahnke learned of a new development PUSH was constructing in the Green Development Zone (GDZ), a twenty-five-block neighborhood on the West Side where PUSH has concentrated its green construction, weatherization, renewable energy, and job training efforts. About a year ago, he moved into his new apartment, an energy-efficient unit in a building constructed using green building practices.
“It’s totally amazing. It’s quite a transformation [in my life,]” says Jahnke. “I was burglarized three times in the place on West Utica; I don’t really have a fear of that happening here. I’m on disability, so I spend a lot of time in a wheelchair, and this house is handicap accessible, which is great.”
Handicap-accessible bathroom; affordable housing unit
In the GDZ, Jahnke and his neighbors are empowered through the work of PUSH and its partners to transform and revitalize their neighborhood. Instead of relying on a top-down approach, in which a major developer swoops in and attempts to sweep away decades of blight, PUSH asks residents to identify the needs in their community, then arms them with the organizing, leadership, and job skills to address them.
“It’s very important to have community-based control of the redevelopment,” Jahnke says. “Our motto is, ‘We know what we need where we live.’ Bring it to the table if it’s an issue for you, and we’ll take a look and see if we can do something about it.”
Central to the organization’s mission is the concept of climate justice, which states that the poorest and most marginalized members of our community suffer the most from climate change. In other words, climate change and the push for renewable energy are not just environmental or political issues—they’re social issues that affect each one of us, especially those in neighborhoods like the GDZ.
“Climate justice means the climate is just for everybody,” says Maxine Murphy, a longtime PUSH volunteer and current board chair who represented PUSH and the City of Buffalo at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Maxine Murphy, a longtime PUSH volunteer and current board chair; the NetZero house
Gas bills make up a major portion of housing costs for low-income individuals, particularly in Buffalo, which has the oldest housing stock of any US municipality, according to the US Census Bureau. In this way, sustainability and affordability are intertwined: without proper weatherization, heating costs can rise exponentially, leaving some unable to pay their heating bills, or forced to sacrifice in other areas. “Everybody has a right to be warm, to heat their food up, and heat their houses up,” Murphy says.
“In one of our first demonstrations, we had fake money, and we took a fan and blew the money out the window because that’s what was happening with heat—you could turn up the thermostat, but, because the houses were so old and not insulated, all of the money was going right out the window,” Murphy says.
Over the past five years, PUSH has repaired and weatherized more than 215 homes in the GDZ through programs offering free or discounted services or forgivable loans. In addition, PUSH has rehabilitated or constructed more than fifty quality, affordable housing units in the GDZ; all are occupied, and wait-list times run from eighteen to twenty-four months. Also, instead of outsourcing the work, this community investment creates green jobs for area residents, giving community members an even greater stake in their neighborhood.
“It has gone through a transformation, where there are many fewer abandoned houses,” says Jahnke of the GDZ. “Some of that is attributable to the very recent real estate boom in the area, but PUSH Buffalo was there from the beginning when the neighborhood was a high-crime, low-safety area. That has turned around a lot through the rebuilding of abandoned houses, because abandoned houses and absentee landlords have a lot to do with drugs and crime.”
Throughout the neighborhood, PUSH has invested in alternative forms of energy and other green features, including solar panels, green roofs, and rain gardens. Murphy lives in the NetZero House, which creates as much energy as it uses every year through such features as a geothermal heating system, solar thermal hot water system, and energy recovery ventilator. Formerly an abandoned property, the house serves as a model for other projects in the zone.
The NetZero House creates as much energy as it uses every year through such features as solar panels, a geothermal heating system, solar thermal hot water system, and energy recovery ventilator
Other vacant lots have been transformed into green spaces and community gardens that, along with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) urban farm, provide residents access to fresh, healthy produce.
“This [area] has one of the largest immigrant populations, and this is a food desert,” says Murphy. “They are growing food from their countries, and they share it. That is vitally important.”
Of course, there is still work to be done, both in the GDZ and throughout the city to encourage the adoption of renewable energy, ensure housing is sustainable and affordable with proper insulation, and create quality jobs throughout the community. Lonnie Barlow, PUSH communications director, says that one of PUSH’s upcoming projects is the conversion of the Buffalo Public School 77 building on Normal Avenue into office space for PUSH and other community organizations, senior housing, and community space for programming. Plans also call for installing a solar micro-grid on top of the building that could store and generate solar power for the building and nearby residents.
“The houses we have renovated in the green zone are a testament to what can be done,” says Murphy. “A green zone could be established no matter where you are in Buffalo or America. It’s about weatherizing, looking for alterative ways of heating your house—solar, wind. We’re all in this together. Let’s look for ways to preserve the Earth, so everybody can enjoy its benefits.”
For a first-hand look at the GDZ and its community development, PUSH offers free, one-hour walking tours. Upcoming tour dates include March 8 and 22, April 12 and 26, and May 10 and 24. For questions or to sign up, contact Jen Mecozzi, logistics coordinator, at email@example.com.
Matthew Biddle writes the Going Green column for Spree Home. Tweet him @matthew_biddle.