BRIAN BENJAMIN RESPONSES
1) What are your top environmental and climate-related priorities?
The office of comptroller has a special role to place in the fight against climate change. Within the confines of a formerly redlined neighborhood it is not hard to see the urgency with which we must tackle this issue as a community and as a city. Decades of disinvestment and a lack of green space in neighborhoods like mine means that when summer heat rises because of carbon emissions, neighborhoods like Harlem and Brownsville suffer more emergency room visits and deaths from heat stroke. And when infrastructure crumbles and our air or even soil remains polluted, its children in Highbridge and East Harlem that end up with record high rates of asthma hospitalizations. In fact, formerly redlined neighborhoods in New York City are on average 5 degrees hotter in the summer than other neighborhoods, creating a deadly urban heat island effect. These same communities also experienced lower building quality that led to peeling lead paint and other dangerous environmental situations.
The results in an inequitable city, with different housing stock, different heat levels, and even different levels of health and wellness. We have seen the decades-long results of environmental racism play out in the COVID-19 pandemic, where Black and brown communities have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus because of preexisting conditions directly linked to the legacy of redlining and the present impacts of climate change. This is the threat of climate change as we feel it here and now most presently–we can’t address it by keeping these neighborhoods at the center of the solution. As a father who is raising a little girl in Harlem, I have both the skills and the lived experience to meet these challenges head on.
For this reason I believe climate change and sustainability need to be a part of all our decision making. As comptroller, this principally include: investments and divestments in the pension fund and looking at sustainability and resilience as a part of audits.
2) How would you prioritize the creation of climate jobs in New York City and investment in communities of color, if at all?
These divestments that three of the five pension funds recently made will be most meaningful if New York City and State’s capital spending backs them up. I will continue to support historic investments in green infrastructure so we can transition our union workers from building fossil fuel infrastructure to building the facilities we need to build a 21st century city. Today, more than 150,000 New Yorkers are at work at clean energy jobs, and I will use the office of comptroller to ensure that this work is done at a fair prevailing wage and that services are provided by M/WBE contractors. This work includes purchasing electric and hybrid vehicles whenever possible, even if it costs slightly more in the short term. New York City has a goal to completely electrify its fleet by 2040, I will ensure we meet or exceed this goal. These are investments in our future, and we cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish. My audits will measure performance with this in mind.
3) How would you advance the City’s goal of implementing 100% clean, affordable energy and maximizing greenhouse gas and co-pollutant reductions, if at all?
In January, I celebrated the decision of three of the five pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. This decision was made by the labor trustees after careful consideration of the returns, and it was the right thing to do. Divesting is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. I currently sit on the board of Brown University, which divested from fossil fuels while making excellent returns for the endowment. I will use the same skills he brings to the Brown University board to the pension fund to help guide the city out of fossil fuel divestment while still protecting the retirees benefits and ensuring the city will not have to shovel more money into the pensions to keep them solvent, syphoning precious budget dollars away from social services.
I will also work with the labor trustees who control the pension funds to make investments that meet the very best environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards. The fact is green investing is good investing, and I know my many years of financial experience will allow us to make decisions and deals to ensure we all benefit from these critical investments.
We also need to build our own public infrastructure for green energy and incentivize the creation of private green energy infrastructure as well! That means everything to solar rooftops on new affordable housing to an expanded green grid for public utilities. Wherever this is possible, this economic development needs to be paired with workforce development, providing training for local communities so that they can be a part of improving their own neighborhoods and, more broadly, the jobs of the future. This model was successfully used by WE ACT in their SUN (Solar Uptown Now) program.
4) How would you support the affordable and low-income housing sector in improving energy efficiency, enhancing residents’ comfort and living conditions, and meeting the City’s emissions reductions goals, if at all?
New York City currently possesses more than a thousand lots of vacant land which can be utilized to build a more sustainable city. By actively tracking this resource as well as commercial and residential lots that are underutilized and have remained permanently in a tax delinquent status, I will work with city agencies to find green uses that city agencies and the community can invest in. We can use this land to build affordable and sustainable housing to fight both climate change and the affordable housing crisis. These builds could be financed by either HPD, partnerships with public development, or directly by investments from the pension funds under the stewardship of the comptroller depending on the need in the particular community. This housing can include green space to fight urban heat both with open space on lots. Even when large amounts of open space is not possible, green roofs to provide the benefits of greenery and blue roofs which retain stormwater can help preserve our environment.
5) How would you support the expansion of clean public transportation in the City, if at all?
New York City is a city on the go. But it is much easier to “go green” if you live in some neighbors than in others. Where my mom lives in Queens, the only feasible transportation to Manhattan is a bus ride, a walk, and a bus ride a way. Those who can afford to often take a cab between the two buses to make sure they make it to work on time. Others don’t bother with buses at all–they drive into work every day. Situations like the “two fare zone” have to be addressed if we want to equitably cut down on carbon emissions in our city. We need an approach that ensures that the public, green transportation infrastructure we are building throughout the city meets the needs of our residents, and erases existing disparities. I will measure the following programs and push for equal implementation to ensure that every community has equal opportunity to choose green transportation in New York City.
A few examples:
1) Expanded bus lanes can readily meet the needs of New Yorkers of all kinds who need to travel long distances to make it work, study, worship, and visit family and friends. The MTA’s “Better Buses” provide a safe and sustainable alternative to car travel that I will push for in every community to ensure that every community has equal opportunity to choose public transportation over a car ride.
2) A US Department of Transportation study showed that the fastest rate of growth in biking was in Black, Hispanic and Asian communities. A bike lane map of New York City makes it clear that our bike infrastructure is not meeting those needs. The key to this problem is a lack of community engagement. Safe, protected bike lanes are a key to a green New York City, and to meet this need, I will use my Equity Audits to ensure that future transportation programs include the community engagement necessary to make sure that this infrastructure is built in ways that make sense in every community.
3) An important part of moving on from fossil fuels is creating the electric charging stations necessary for privately owned electric vehicles, but currently far too many of New York City’s publicly available electric charging stations are concentrated in Manhattan’s business district. I will track where tax incentives to build new charging stations are directed and encourage spending in higher need neighborhoods, ensure that any charging station that is built with public dollars through federal, state or city tax incentives is truly publicly available, and push agencies like the Parks Department to make their charging states available to the public at cost to increase access to this infrastructure in high need neighborhoods.
6) How would you upgrade local industrial port infrastructure in a way that is both sustainable and equitable, if at all?
I support upgrading local port infrastructure and advocating for state and federal funding to do so.
7A) How would you develop climate resiliency infrastructure on public lands to protect New York City’s most vulnerable communities, if at all?
Using the green land bank discussed above, we can use the office of comptroller to keep these lots vacant and convert them into permanent green space that is available to the residents of the city. Many of these vacant lots are already doing important work if the ground is permeable and wild plants are growing, but opening the area up to a simple community garden would improve this. Roadways, parking lots, buildings and other covered surfaces trap and amplify heat. In contrast, green space with uncovered earth, greenery, and trees to provide shade cool down the areas that surround them. The result is that areas that lack permanently preserved green spaces become “heat islands,” and as climate change increases summer temperatures, the threat of summer heat in these areas grows. New York measures this threat with its Heat Vulnerability Index (HVI), and I will ensure that existing open space in areas that have a high HVI rating are kept open or converted to permanently green space. Green space also offers an important, restorative retreat from the bustle of city life, and can be a plus for mental health.
We could also create simple working green infrastructure for the city that can even help take some of the burden off our aging sewer system. New York City’s sewer city uses one collection system for rain and waste. This means that heavy rain causes an overflow of waste into local waterways that is incredibly dangerous to our environment. By including permanent permeable space or every preserving part of the space as a rain garden or infiltration basin, we can help prevent this. But this can only be done if this resource is tracked across agencies! We can also use this land for the creation of more complex green infrastructure necessary for a truly green city, including citing for public utilities, green energy generation, energy storage, and more.
Another thing I believe the city must consider is making the land available for urban agriculture, shown to create a healthier relationship with food. By placing residents in direct contact with the source of their food, urban agriculture has been shown to encourage “food sovereignty.” This has both direct nutritional and far-reaching social benefits, reshaping connections not only by providing city residents with the food they directly produce, but also impacting how city residents feel about food in general. Particularly in neighborhoods with food desserts, these opportunities allow city residents to redefine how they think about food from a negative, consumer / producer mindset to a nutritional and sustaining mindset, which can allow for healthier patterns of consumption elsewhere and form a sense of ownership over one’s food consumption in general. Queens, which public records show to have the highest number of city owned vacant lots, also includes many residents living in food deserts. These are ideal communities to encourage the development of urban agriculture within, and I will ensure that relevant agencies are considering these options in each of my audits.
7B) How would you support the Renewable Rikers proposal, if at all?
I fought for the closure of Rikers Island early in my tenure in the senate, and I also support the Renewable Rikers plan. This plan would ensure that the 400-acres that the correctional facility currently sits on is turned to a public good, housing the green infrastructure our city needs to be a truly 21st century city.
8A) How would you support the City in meeting its target of becoming zero waste by 2030, if at all?
Our current waste collection system puts too much organic waste into landfills, leading to dangerous methane emissions, poisoning our air and hastening the disastrous impacts of climate change. By investing in organic waste composting and ensuring our city’s recycling system is well funded, we can avoid these effects! I will also measure the Department of Sanitation’s compliance with Commercial Waste Zones and Local Law 199 to ensure our commercial waste collection system advances our zero-waste goals. This will help reduce commercial waste, incentivize recycling, and also reduce truck traffic that leads to harmful emissions.
8B) Commercial Waste Zones and Local Law 199 is an example of the sort of comprehensive and transformative climate justice policy that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emission while also raising labor standards, and its implementation will likely happen under the next mayoral administration. How will you ensure that the ambitious goals of the policy are prioritized and accomplished in its implementation?
I hope to have the opportunity to use the office comptroller to audit these new programs! It will be a priority
9A) How would you invest in the New York City workforce for a future of climate jobs, if at all?
New York City’s pension fund has the ability to invest its Economically Targeted Investments in the creation of, for example, sustainable and affordable housing. If I am comptroller this will be a major priority. Building these developments will add to the so called “green collar jobs” that are already growing in New York, and I will work to ensure that any economic development includes workforce development so that the communities experiencing new development are able to share in the progress in many ways.
9B) How would you implement measures to ensure the creation of high road jobs, if at all?
The majority of NYC’s carbon emissions come from transportation, there is no way to address this without changing the way we move. I look forward to fighting for the green jobs this will come with!
10) Is there an innovative idea, policy or otherwise, that you believe would allow NYC to be a leader in our quest for Climate Justice?
First and foremost, the work being done by climate groups should be centered. As a former community board chair I know that successful governance is only possible collaboratively. If elected comptroller I look forward to fighting forward climate justice by applying the power of this office is new ways and by working with groups who are leading the way.