Change Maker: Chris Barrett, Resiliency Coordinator, Nazareth Housing

Housing and homelessness are on many New Yorkers’ minds when it comes to inequality. Both this year and last, housing or homelessness were cited as a major concern: 14.8% of ISLG public survey participants responded that they was their largest inequality concern (last year 15.4% of participants said the same). In a city where over 50% of renters are characterized as “cost-burdened,” or paying more than 30% of their income in rent and utilities, the findings are no surprise.

An organization with deep roots in NYC and at the forefront of assisting people with housing and preventing homelessness is Nazareth Housing. Since 1983, Nazareth Housing has been placing people in stable housing and teaching them the skills necessary for staying there. Running emergency family shelter programs and supportive housing programs across the five boroughs, Nazareth Housing looks at housing holistically, recognizing that the challenge of stable housing cannot be looked at in isolation. Often those who lose housing do so after experiencing a job loss or a natural disaster.

Resiliency is a theme Nazareth Housing has embraced. After Hurricane Sandy, Nazareth Housing was one of the first to respond to the surrounding community, helping displaced residents on the Lower East Side find temporary housing, food, and clean water. For those who experienced job loss because of the storm, Nazareth Housing connected them with jobs and other services. Soon after Sandy, New York State provided funding to Nazareth House (through the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Plan) so a formalized resiliency plan could be implemented.

The Equality Indicators got a chance to talk with Chris Barrett, Nazareth Housing’s Resiliency Coordinator, about his work developing and executing Nazareth Housing’s Resiliency Plan and how he sees it fitting into the work of keeping people in stable housing.

What does it mean to make a city or a place “resilient?” What is the first step in making a place resilient?

Making a city or a place resilient means recognizing the unique vulnerabilities the city has, understanding the various components of the city and how they interact with each other (the built environment, transit, the economy, the social ties that exist within neighborhoods, etc.), and then strengthening all those various sectors so that when disaster strikes, they’re still able to function normally. It’s about retaining normalcy during abnormal times, and enhancing community wellbeing during ordinary times.

The first step in making a place resilient—whether it’s a city, a neighborhood, or an individual building—is to recognize and understand its vulnerabilities, and plan for them. Our cities are facing lots of challenges—economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, unsustainable development, and more—but in my opinion climate change is the greatest challenge because it exacerbates all other problems. The housing crisis will worsen as urban waterfronts are swallowed by rising seas; public health risks will increase as heatwaves become stronger and more frequent; urban economies will suffer when we have to rebuild from “100-year storms” that now come once a decade. This is why I consider myself fortunate to live and work in New York, where so many residents understand these challenges and are working, with the city and the state, to prepare for them.

Your organization serves a mix of clients, from those needing emergency shelter to those needing permanent housing. You maintain four buildings for these purposes, which are currently being retro-fitted with solar panels. How does clean energy tie in with serving those experiencing housing displacement?

Clean energy and housing stability are connected in a lot of ways that might not seem obvious at first. Looking at the big picture of climate change, we know that vulnerable communities, including individuals or families facing housing displacement, are the first and most affected by the impacts of a changing climate. They don’t necessarily have the same resources to prepare for and recover from natural disasters. By investing in renewable energy, we’re addressing that problem at the source, in a small way, by minimizing our greenhouse gas emissions.

On a practical level, this is also just saving us money. By generating energy on our rooftop and purchasing it at a reliable rate from Co-op Power (a consumer-owned sustainable energy cooperative which owns the panels), we’re going to save around $19,000 over the lifespan of the panels. This is money that can be put into our programming—the counseling and case management services that help our clients find stable housing or avoid homelessness in the first place.

Can you tell us a little more about how your solar project came to be?

Back in May 2016, one of our partners at LESReady! (a neighborhood coalition born out of Superstorm Sandy) launched the Solarize LES campaign in partnership with the non-profit Solar One, in an effort to bring renewable energy to the Lower East Side. This was pretty soon after I started working at Nazareth Housing, and it was exactly the sort of project I wanted to get involved in. I ended up submitting all four of our buildings for consideration and within five minutes Solar One reached out to start scheduling rooftop assessments.

In the end we decided that our building on East 6th St., a mix of permanent supportive housing and temporary emergency shelter, was the best candidate. This is a building that was part of the Lower East Side homesteading movement. It also flooded during Superstorm Sandy, so there is a lot of symbolism there in terms of housing stability and climate resiliency. By going solar, we’re bringing those homesteading values of self-sufficiency into the 21st century.

The panels will be installed in February by the non-profit GRID Alternatives Tri-State, an organization that focuses on workforce development in the solar industry. This will be the first project in the Affordable Solar New York program, a partnership between GRID Alternatives Tri-State, Solar One, and Co-op Power, and I hope other affordable housing providers take advantage of the program. The process is incredibly simple, the financial and environmental benefits are no-brainers, and the organizations involved all have really admirable goals at the heart of their missions.

Why is it important for Nazareth Housing and other places to think about and incorporate green energy into their work? Some people may think that green energy is out of reach for them. How can that mindset be changed? How can green energy be made more accessible for those people?

I think that by embracing sustainability and placing it at the core of the work they do, organizations that work with low-income communities can start to erase this misconception that “going green” is a luxury reserved for people with financial means. We can’t afford to let sustainability remain a luxury; otherwise what we’ll end up with are very green, very exclusive enclaves surrounded by poor, unhealthy, unsustainable neighborhoods (to a larger extent than we have now, I mean!).

Our job at Nazareth Housing and in similar community-based organizations is to educate and empower our clients so that these things don’t seem out of reach. By placing solar panels on our building, it raises the bar a little bit. It shows that affordable and shelter housing can be just as sustainable, resilient, and “green” as the luxury condo being built down the block. In terms of accessibility to green energy, we need more policy at the city, state, and federal level that make programs like Affordable Solar New York possible. New York is doing really great, innovative work in that regard, but it needs to be happening everywhere.

You have said that environmental justice is something important to you, as a professional in urban planning, but also as a NYC denizen. Why is environmental justice important? What does an environmentally just world look like to you?

Environmental justice, for me, is a moral issue. It’s wrong that the environmental consequences of our actions have always fallen on the communities who contribute least to the problem. As climate change worsens, we’re seeing these groups impacted more and more, and so I think there’s a moral imperative that people in a position to do so work to lessen those impacts, to make everyone, but especially the vulnerable, more resilient.

In an environmentally just world, green technologies will be widely available to all segments of society; cities will take equity into consideration in all planning decisions, and communities will be included in those decisions in meaningful ways; perpetrators of environmental injustice will be held accountable; and everyone, regardless of their demographic background, will enjoy improved health, secure housing, and peace of mind in an uncertain future.