Newly elected legislators are introducing an ambitious package of bills in both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly to deal with Rhode Island’s “overlapping crises of mass unemployment, racial and economic injustice, a severe shortage of affordable housing, a rapidly accelerating eviction emergency, widespread food insecurity, and climate change.”
The legislative package, called the Rescue Rhode Island Act, is being advanced by Senators Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence), Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls), and Kendra Anderson (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston) in the Senate, and Representatives David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence) and Brianna Henries (Democrat, District 64, East Providence) in the House. All five legislators were sworn into public office last week.
A new coalition, Renew Rhode Island, is supporting the package of legislation. The Renew Rhode Island coalition is composed of over 25 grassroots organizations and co-chaired by Monica Huertas, Executive Director of The People’s Port Authority, and Emma Bouton, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement.
Members of the Renew Rhode Island coalition include:
- Carpenters Union – Local 330
- Climate & Development Lab, Brown University
- Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE)
- Environmental Justice League of RI
- George Wiley Center
- Groundwork RI
- Providence Racial and Environmental Justice Committee
- Rhode Island Political Cooperative
- Rhode Island Sierra Club
- RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
- Roots 2Empower
- South Side Community Land Trust
- Sunrise Providence
- Sunrise RI Youth
- The People’s Port Authority
- Our Revolution Rhode Island
- The Womxn Project
- Hope’s Harvest RI
- Washington Park Association
- Movement Education Outdoors
- Demand Progress
- Never Again Action RI
- WOMEN’S REFUGEE CARE
- BLM RI PAC
- BLM New England PAC
- SunRise Forever, Inc
Not just a Rhode Island effort, Renew Rhode Island is part of the regional Renew New England coalition, which includes over 150 leading grassroots organizations across the region’s six states – including frontline communities, labor unions, Indigenous tribes, environmental justice advocates, youth groups, and racial justice organizations. Renew coalitions in other New England states are announcing similar legislation in what Renew Rhode Island calls “an unprecedented region-wide legislative campaign.”
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You can join the Renew Rhode Island launch event Zoom call on Tuesday, January 12th at 7pm: Sign up here
Renew New England produced the following short video:
In all, the legislative package will include three bills, one for green housing, one for sustainably-produced food, and one to protect clean air and water. The legislators and Renew RI maintain that successfully implementing this legislation will:
- Create thousands of dignified, well-compensated jobs and launch a large-scale, union-led job training program to equip workers with the skills necessary to join expanding Green New Deal industries.
- Build thousands of high-quality, energy-efficient, affordable apartments, and install rooftop solar panels on tens of thousands of low-income households, slashing carbon emissions and dramatically reducing utility bills.
- Establish a network of urban community gardens and rural farms that pay workers fair wages to locally grow nutritious food using regenerative agricultural practices, promoting ecological sustainability, enhancing food security for low-income communities, and reducing our region’s dependence on global, carbon-intensive food supply chains.
- Dismantle polluting industries – like petroleum refineries and toxic waste storage sites – in frontline and overburdened communities, and fund environmental remediation projects – such as replacing lead pipes – for local residents.
- Jump-start the high-paying, unionized Green New Deal industries – like energy-efficient housing construction and solar panel installation – that will create unprecedented, widely shared prosperity throughout Rhode Island.
UpriseRI spoke to Senator Tiara Mack, Representative David Morales, Renew Rhode Island co-chairs Monica Huertas and Emma Bouton, and Renew Rhode Island Policy Director Josh Kestin:
UpriseRI: I expect that there will be some opposition to this legislative package at the State House, including from members of the Democratic Caucus. Pushing this through will be a process. What are you hearing from other lawmakers?
Representative David Morales: We’re going to have some preliminary conversations where we’re really just outlining the ideas of what’s behind the policies – which is investments towards our local farms, making sure we are investing towards our neighborhood which have been disproportionally affected in terms of lead in the water, through the lead pipes, levels of high pollution, and a lack of investment in affordable housing.
The sentiment I received from a lot of people is that they are generally supportive of the ideas and ultimately want to see the details. most specifically the funding mechanisms underlying these investments.
So I’d say that broadly people agree with the idea and the concept. They just want to understand the process behind it before they fully pledge their support.
UpriseRI: The plan is very rooted in the Green New Deal – in a way, this is local and regional Green New Deal work. But there’s a lot of input and involvement here from what I would call affected communities, poor and minority communities that Monica Huertas works on a lot. What did that process look like? What were the conversations about?
Monica Huertas: We got together over a year ago saying we’re sick of playing whack-a-mole, sick of having pockets of people coming into our communities and us having to start organizing and door knocking – So we got together and said, let’s see what we can do.
Usually what Massachusetts does, Rhode Island does and what Rhode Island does Connecticut does, so let’s work with grass root community organizers, union folk, people like that that are already doing that work (and also I’m sick of fighting with the unions too) so that we can all come together for a comprehensive plan.
No more putting out fires. No more band-aids. There are a lot of policies out there that people are advocating for that are just band-aids. The bigger problem is that communities of color are suffering, and these policies, this legislation, are things that we can do now, things that have been implemented in other states. Not just the Green New Deal but the New Jersey bill that we based a lot of this on. It took grassroots organizations in New Jersey ten years to pass it – hopefully it won’t take us that long – it’s not going to take us that long because, frankly, we’re just going to vote them all out if they don’t do what we want them to do.
This isn’t a band-aid to deal with affordable housing or taxes. This is about jobs, housing and cleaning the environment. It’s going to be comprehensive and full of good work.
This is no different than what we’ve been saying for years, and no different from what people around the world have been saying: We need action now, this is the perfect opportunity to do it. Covid affects people of color the most, people who are in these polluted areas are being affected the most. And it’s time right now, now that people are looking for innovation – This is it, right here. We already did the work for you. We went to the community. We spent over a year working on this. So implement it.
Senator Tiara Mack: First and foremost this is a racial justice issue and policy, and everything Monica said came from communities that are the most impacted historically racist environmental practices. In order to recognize the current racial moment that we are in as a nation we have to recognize all of the roots that it has in our communities.
Lack of housing is a racial justice issue. Lack of clean air in prominently Black, brown and immigrant communities is a racial justice issue. So when people want to know what combatting white supremacy and combatting racial injustice looks like, it looks like passing policies that give us good housing, good jobs, and clean air in every single community, starting with the people most historically impacted.
UpriseRI: When we talk about putting solar panels on houses in poor and minority communities, we’re oftentimes talking about putting these panels on rented apartments owned by landlords. Is there a way to do that so that landlords don’t take ownership of the energy savings, and what would that look like?
Josh Kestin: The bill that we’re introducing next week is going to ensure that 100 percent of the financial of rooftop solar installed on multi-family homes goes to the tenants and not the landlords. The solar panels are installed for free, and in exchange for that the landlords are required to enroll in the community net metering law, and the utilities are subsequently required to offset the utility bills sent to the tenants of those homes based on the amount of energy produced by the solar panels. the landlords get the solar panels installed for free and the tenants get all of the energy that is produced by the solar panels, for dramatically reduced utility bills, depending on how many panels are able to be crammed onto the roofs.
UpriseRI: This is happening across New England, and I’m sure the legislation will vary from state to sate depending on grassroots activism and legislative appetite. So what does this look like across New England, and how is this shaping up?
Josh Kestin: About a year ago we convened this group of frontline communities and grassroots organizers and developed this comprehensive policy framework that was designed to transform the regional economy in order to ensure that we meet every New Englander’s basic needs – food, housing, transportation, energy, health care, clean air and clean water. Simultaneously a framework was designed to achieve carbon neutrality in the electricity sector by 2030 and the transportation sectors by 2040. And then, from that regional framework we developed we pulled three areas – housing food and clean air and water – that we want to focus on throughout the region this year for our first legislative advocacy campaign. Some combination of all three is being done in every state in the region.
The proposals in each state are quite ambitious and the advocacy campaigns that we’re assembling in each state are quite impressive.
UpriseRI: What are the biggest obstacles to overcome in getting this legislation passed?
Emma Bouton: We’re expecting to see a pretty well-funded opposition. We are gearing up to tackle that with even more grassroots power. We’re planning to knock on tens of thousands of doors between now and 2022. We’re going to be working to identify community leaders in swing vote districts who can rally their neighbors and talk to folks about these amazing policies. We’re going to face big opposition, but we’re building a campaign the scale of which Rhode Island has not seen before to tray and counter all of that.
Josh Kestin: I think the thing that makes this legislation different and significant is that lots of organizations pay lip service to the idea of serious engagement with marginalized communities but the follow through isn’t always there. This regional plan is different. It was developed by a regional council, majority BIPOC, which is composed of labor unions and indigenous tribes and racial justice organizers and youth climate justice groups and housing activists. The process was in a really sincere way that I’ve rarely ever seen before – led by the community.
I think that’s why the plans ended up becoming so ambitious and intersectional – because community members throughout New England really understand the scale of the problems that we face and the kind of deep transformations that need to occur in order for us to rebuild our state, our region, our country and the world from the ground up.
That’s what this is all about.
If the legislation seems like some form of a state-wide and regional version of the Green New Deal, that’s because it is. The effort has received the endorsement of Robert Hockett, Professor of Law at Cornell University and a leading architect of the Congressional Green New Deal Resolution. Hocket said implementing this plan means that New England would lead the nation, taking “the first step toward full realization of the Green New Deal with the Renew New England plan” and “building the industries of tomorrow – industries that bring unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, unprecedented workplace and wage justice, and unprecedented environmental renewal and sustainability first to the region, then to the nation and world.”
Timmons Roberts, Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University, also supports the plan. “Renew’s vision is the most ambitious and comprehensive plan I’ve seen to decarbonize the Rhode Island economy in a just way,” said Professor Roberts. “Renew launches the first real effort to address our social and environmental vulnerabilities together. This is an exciting start: Renew’s plan is absolutely necessary for our state’s health, security and economy in this century.”
The national Sunrise Movement issued a statement in support, saying, “The Sunrise Movement is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Renew New England in our fight to stop climate change and build an equitable, just future. Renew New England’s bold, innovative launch of a regional Green New Deal is a much needed step to make climate change a priority in local communities and continue to strengthen this movement.”
Renew Rhode Island estimates that the entire legislative package will cost $300 million, which is 2.5 percent of the state budget. The group cited numerous ways the state could generate the revenue needed for the program, including raising the top marginal tax rate by 5% on the richest 1% of Rhode Islanders – who all make over $460,000 each year – which would generate over $170 million per year. Other proposals include raising the tax by just 1.5% on high-end real estate transactions — when people are buying a house or mansion worth more than $500,000 — to generate $34.3 million each year, and enacting commonsense criminal justice reforms. For example, legalizing recreational marijuana and freeing all nonviolent drug offenders from prison would generate at least another $76.5 million annually. Additionally, cutting the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation’s handouts for big businesses will save the state millions more in revenue each year.
Legislative Summary of the Rescue Rhode Island Act:
Rhode Island faces a series of overlapping crises: mass unemployment, racial injustice, a severe shortage of affordable housing, a rapidly accelerating eviction emergency, widespread food insecurity, economic inequality, extreme pollution, and climate change. The Rescue Rhode Island Act is a legislative package that will address all of these crises simultaneously. This legislative package includes three bills – one for green housing, one for sustainably-produced food, and one to protect clean air and water. The package is designed to create jobs, advance racial justice, promote economic fairness, and begin the systemic transformations necessary to secure an ecologically sustainable future in which every Rhode Islander has housing, food, and clean air and water. Over the course of the decade, the Rescue Rhode Island Act will:
- Create thousands of dignified, well-compensated jobs, and launch a large-scale, union-led job training program to equip workers with the skills necessary to join expanding green industries.
- Dismantle polluting industries in frontline and overburdened communities, and fund environmental remediation projects – such as replacing lead pipes – for local residents.
- Build thousands of units of high-quality, green affordable housing and install rooftop solar panels on tens of thousands of low-income households, slashing carbon emissions and dramatically reducing utility bills for low-income customers.
- Establish a network of urban community gardens and rural farms that pay workers fair wages to locally grow nutritious food using regenerative agricultural practices, promoting ecological sustainability, enhancing food security for low-income communities, and reducing Rhode Island’s dependence on global, carbon-intensive food supply chains.
- Jump-start the high-paying, unionized green industries – like energy-efficient housing construction and solar panel installation – that will create unprecedented, widely shared prosperity throughout the state.
Rhode Island has a severe shortage of affordable homes. Even before the COVID-induced economic recession, over 22% of renter households in our state were severely cost burdened, meaning they paid over 50% of their gross income on rent. (See here and here) The housing affordability crisis is particularly severe in Black and brown communities across the state. Additionally, housing accounts for 19% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely because homes in our state are not sufficiently energy efficient and are not equipped with rooftop solar. To address these two problems, we will launch the Housing Jobs Construction Program, which will build thousands of high-quality, energy-efficient residential apartments across the state that are equipped with rooftop solar panels. These apartments will be available to low- and middle-income families, and residents will be charged no more than 20% of their annual income on rent. The growing presence of low-cost apartments will reduce the systemic shortage of affordable housing in Rhode Island, driving down rental fees across the state. These new housing units will be interspersed with market-rate units to avoid segregating low-income communities into isolated apartment buildings.
Another crucial factor contributing to our state’s housing crisis is the rising cost of utilities, with low-income residents across the state facing utility shutoffs. To reduce utility bills and Rhode Island’s carbon emissions, we will launch the Solar Jobs Program, which will install rooftop solar panels, for free, on tens of thousands of homes and apartment buildings, beginning with low-income communities. We will also protect low-income utility customers from shutoffs by prohibiting utilities from charging these customers more than 2% of their income for annual utility bills.
The Housing Jobs Construction Program and the Solar Jobs Program will create thousands of new jobs across the state. To equip workers with the skills needed to perform these jobs, we will launch the Housing Jobs Council, a union-led jobs program that will train workers to build energy-efficient affordable housing and to install rooftop solar panels. Workers will be paid to receive this training, and we will ensure that the program includes Black and brown workers.
Landlord-tenant laws in Rhode Island are severely imbalanced, systematically prioritizing the interests of landlords. We will strengthen tenant protections, banning no-cause evictions, and prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who receive federal housing assistance. We will also ramp up tenants’ rights enforcement.
We will spend $200 million each year for the rest of the decade to fund these housing programs.
The overwhelming majority of food consumed in our state is produced by giant, industrialized agricultural firms that degrade the environment and exploit vulnerable workers. This food is then shipped into Rhode Island through highly carbon-intensive supply chains, accelerating the climate crisis. Moreover, the current system fails to adequately feed huge swaths of our state. The longstanding food insecurity crisis in Rhode Island has been dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic, and one quarter of Rhode Island households now struggle to afford food. We need an entirely new food system, one that revolves around localized, sustainable agricultural production, fair labor standards, and a fundamental right to enjoyable and nutritious food.
We will begin building our new food system by developing a network of community land trusts throughout the state that will pay workers fair wages to produce local food in ecologically sustainable ways. These community land 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 towards low- and middle-income communities. Additionally, we will 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.
Agriculture is deeply interdependent with the surrounding ecosystem. The rapidly accelerating environmental degradation in our state threatens our ability to localize agricultural production by damaging biodiversity, destroying pollinator habitats, and eroding soil. To support local agriculture, we will establish the Ecosystem Restoration Program, rehabilitating damaged forests, fields, coastlines, and wetlands, increasing our state’s resilience to extreme weather events, and enabling us to safely localize our food production in Rhode Island.
We will spend $75 million each year for the rest of the decade to fund these food programs.
Clean Air and Water
For decades, giant corporations have poisoned our air and water, particularly in Black and brown communities and low-income neighborhoods. We will enact the Green Justice Zone Program, which will protect marginalized communities from corporate polluters and fund long-overdue environmental remediation projects.
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. We will dismantle pollution-intensive facilities – such as petroleum refineries and hazardous waste storage sites – in the Green Justice Zone, protecting residents from the severe health effects of continuing to live near highly toxic industries. We will also provide funding for environmental remediation projects – such as replacing lead pipes in the Zone and installing air filtration systems in Zone residents’ homes. Zone residents will choose, through a local referendum, which environmental remediation projects to prioritize. 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 Green Justice Zone in the South Side of Providence will be the first of many Zones throughout the state, modeling the kinds of benefits that communities across Rhode Island will receive over the next decade of the Green Justice Zone Program. In the immediate term, we will prohibit new, pollution-intensive facilities from being built in communities in any part of the state that are already overburdened by pollution.
We will spend $25 million each year for the rest of the decade to fund the Green Justice Zone program.