SOMAH: Centering Environmental Justice in Climate Friendly Buildings

electric building

The building electrification movement is gaining momentum across the nation, especially in California. According to the Sierra Club, as of June 2nd, 2021, Sacramento became the forty-sixth city in the state to commit to phasing out natural gas from new building construction. Moving away from natural gas for heating and cooking is important not only to reduce the impacts of climate change but to protect health and safety. Gas pipelines can devastate water and land. Gas appliances in our homes create air pollution that contributes to serious long-term health effects, including asthma.

 

To successfully eliminate carbon dioxide pollution, or decarbonization, building electrification must be paired with energy efficiency measures. The cleanest source of energy is energy that was never used in the first place. While it’s important to seek renewable, cleaner energy to power our homes, simply reducing energy use is the single-most effective tactic for decreasing our home’s carbon footprint. Especially for properties looking to solar for their electricity needs, energy efficiency upgrades can reduce the on-site load making solar more affordable.

 

The decarbonization process must also include a sharp focus on equity. Low-income and environmental justice communities often consume more energy per square foot than their more affluent counterparts due to not enough home insulation, old appliances, and lack of access to energy efficiency programs and upgrades. If electrification efforts are made without protections for renters, landlords and property developers can recoup the costs of these upgrades by raising rents and risking displacement. As we advocate for electrified homes, we must center the needs of low-income, vulnerable renters, so that EJ communities have the opportunity to reap the benefits of these investments.

 

Programs like the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program have a built-in energy efficiency component to ensure that tenants have the greatest opportunity for bill savings in addition to advancing decarbonization. SOMAH’s technical assistance experts walk property owners through the entire process of going solar, including providing referrals to energy efficiency and other programs like battery storage and electric vehicle charging. SOMAH requires that tenants must receive the full financial benefit of having on-site solar, so decarbonization measures cannot be used to raise rents. California’s low-income renters must not be left behind by the decarbonization movement and equity-focused programs must be part of city and statewide initiatives.

 

To find out if your apartment qualifies for energy efficiency or solar upgrades, please contact the SOMAH program coordinator at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

SOMAH Drives Climate Resiliency in Environmental Justice Communities 

Frozen Texas City

The need for bold action on energy justice was made devastatingly clear through the recent Texas energy crisis, which exposed tens of millions of people to the chill of a historic winter storm. This climate disaster was made even more dangerous by failures in the state’s isolated energy network and insufficient weatherization that left vulnerable families across the state without heat, clean water, or power for days after centralized power plants went offline.

 

What happened in Texas is all too familiar to us in California, as worsening climate disasters disproportionately impact the most marginalized communities as a result of historic divestment in community resources and resilience. Just last summer, we also saw failures in old, fossil fuel dependent energy systems, causing rolling blackouts through dangerous heat and wildfire air pollution. We need new solutions to put us on the pathway towards building energy resilient communities with decentralized, local energy production. That starts with investing in renewables, like rooftop solar, for populations who have often not been able to benefit from solar.

 

From the wildfires in California to the winter storms in Texas, we’ve seen community based organizations directly serving the needs of those communities by organizing relief funds, distributing masks, offering multilingual outreach, and more. CBOs have deep roots in the communities that we serve, which is why our voice in shaping policy and implementation is vital to ensuring that programs - like the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program -  continue to serve the needs of environmental justice communities, and in particular renters in disadvantaged communities, who bear disproportionate pollution burdens. The SOMAH program has an annual budget of up to $100 million for ten years to bring the economic and environmental benefits of solar to California’s low-income renters, and provide an entry point for careers in clean energy.

 

SOMAH serves as an implementation blueprint for all policies and programs that aim to address disparities in under-resourced communities to ensure that even in the face of disasters, there is not only immediate support for our communities but also long-term community-lead solutions for resilience. SOMAH is the first of its kind to resource and develop strong relationships with CBOs as critical partners in the implementation of a program that is aimed to directly serve environmental justice communities.

 

EHC’s work on the implementation of this program, alongside the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and Self Help Enterprises (SHE) has helped low-income renters access solar, putting our communities on the path to developing clean energy resilience in the face of a changing climate. To date, the SOMAH program has 386 active applications with an overall capacity of 68 MW AC (production capacity in megawatts). These applications account for 32,049 affordable housing units with an average 90% allocation of solar energy to tenant units.

 

We’re proud of the first couple of years of SOMAH implementation, but we know there’s still so much work to do to build the resilience our communities need. Especially now, as we mark a full year of the pandemic’s devastation and utility bill debt mounts to new highs, the need for energy bill relief and locally generated, abundant, sustainable energy is urgent.

 

Climate disasters like the deep freeze southerners experienced this winter and the heatwaves we endured locally are predicted to increase in frequency and severity in coming years. EHC will continue to drive investments in climate resilient clean energy through SOMAH and other advocacy efforts, and we’re looking for EJ champions from the community to get involved. If you are a renter and you want the benefits of renewable energy sourced at your building, please contact SOMAH coordinator Monica de la Cruz at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Environmental Health Coalition's statement on California State Auditor report on the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.

Environmental Health Coalition appreciates the leadership of Assembly member Gloria to request this investigation and thanks the Auditor’s office for its comprehensive research. Read full press release from Assembly member Gloria.

This report validates the experiences of residents who live in the communities most impacted by poor air quality.  Their voices have not been heard as complaints languish for months, monies have not been spent appropriately to reduce pollution and San Diego’s air quality is worsening.  EHC looks forward to working with the new Air Pollution Control Board to rectify these problems.

We are dismayed by the corporate subsidies of nearly $4 million that have been provided to industrial polluters.  The permit program should be a ‘full cost recovery’ system with permit holders paying for the total cost of regulating them.  We are concerned that permit fees have been kept low to accommodate demands from industry.  The public’s vehicle registration funds were used to subsidize these companies. Those funds should have been used for programs to reduce air pollution throughout the region and particularly in those communities that are most impacted.

Lack of public participation has been an ongoing and decades long concern.  APCD has improved its community involvement with the Community Air Protection Program but the lack of authentic participation in the advisory board and at APCD board meetings is stunningly poor.  Most board decisions are on consent with only 3 public commenters in 3 years.  The APCD website is not user-friendly and lack transparency.  These are issues that are required to be managed by the passage of AB 423 that creates a new board structure and requirements for improvement.

 

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This March, our lives were completely changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public transit ridership plummeted and unemployment skyrocketed. The pandemic spread, and by April 20, nearly 100 transit workers in the US had died from the coronavirus due to the lack of basic safety measures. The world came to an abrupt stop and we all pivoted to adjust to our new reality.

EHC’s transportation justice work had to pivot as well. Along with community members and partner organizations, we had worked tirelessly for the past two years advocating for MTS to prioritize equity and environmental justice (EJ) communities as it shaped the Elevate SD 2020 ballot measure. Then in April, MTS took Elevate SD 2020 off of the November ballot in response to the pandemic. The potential for an infusion of $24 billion in transit funding over the next 50 years – gone!

The pandemic is still with us. Clean and safe transit is still a critical need. So despite the loss, EHC and the San Diego Transportation Equity Working Group (SDTEWG) have continued our work for transit justice.

And, we are making progress!

On June 18, MTS strengthened its commitment to zero-emission buses by unanimously approving our recommendations to improve its transition plan, which lay out how the agency will move from dirty to clean buses:

  • Prioritize environmental justice communities to get zero-emission buses first
  • Provide a meaningful community engagement process
  • Include workforce training and safety for transit workers
  • Develop more optional scenarios that accelerate the transition
  • Develop greenhouse gas emission reduction analyses to meet state goals

Our communities need and deserve a just recovery. They cannot afford a “return to normal” that locks in decades of toxic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which will lead us into another health crisis from worsened air pollution and climate change. EHC stands ready to work with MTS and our transportation justice allies to ensure a just recovery for all communities.

Image credit: MTS

 

Below please find the text of a letter sent to Governor Gavin Newsom from members of the State Legislature regarding environmental and health regulations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic (Download the PDF).


 

April 27, 2020

The Honorable Gavin Newsom Governor,
State of California State Capitol, First Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814

RE: Urgent Need to Defend Environmental and Health Regulations

Dear Governor Newsom:

Our state is facing an unprecedented public health crisis and many of our residents are experiencing extreme health and economic hardships due to COVID-19. We know firsthand how this crisis is impacting our communities that are complying with the shelter-in-place mandate in Executive Order N-33-20. Additionally, we know this is forcing the Administration and its Agencies to continue to implement regulations and programs that safeguard and protect public health, our environment, and natural resources. We are concerned by recent accounts in the press, as well as letters that the Legislature has received from regulated industries, that are using this public health emergency as an attempt to stop, delay, or otherwise weaken California’s environmental and public health protections. In light of this emergency, it is imperative that we resist efforts to roll back any current protections, and that we instead focus on raising awareness on the importance of healthy lungs, healthy immune systems and maintaining safeguards and health protections in place.

The health of millions of Californians -- many of whom already bear the greatest burdens by living in our state’s most polluted cities -- relies on you maintaining momentum in implementation and defense of clean air and climate protections, including those recently passed by the Legislature and signed into law. Our disadvantaged communities in particular, which would most benefit from regulations to clean up our air, are more at risk from COVID-19 due to harms from consistent air pollution exposure to their respiratory systems. We know that maintaining these safeguards will be important as our state is likely to experience more unpredictable and unforeseen events in the future. Maintaining resilient government institutions must continue to be a hallmark of California public policy, even as we are acutely challenged by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

We have taken a leading role in addressing air pollution and the climate crisis by setting model standards for the rest of the world. We cannot stop. Undoing or delaying these regulations would not only damage our health but also our economy. Scientists warned of a pandemic and the climate crisis -- it is critical that we move towards combating and protecting people from both. Our agencies must resist attempts by polluting industries to exploit our current crisis to loosen, rollback or delay the adoption of vital environmental regulations that protect the health and safety of Californians. We ask that you continue to move forward on critical rulemakings with an emphasis on maximizing equitable and meaningful public participation and community-based feedback. Now more than ever, even as the Federal Administration works to dismantle fundamental regulations, we must uphold our commitment to safeguard Californians’ wellbeing.

We appreciate your continued hard work during these times, and we look forward to working with your agencies to defend California’s life-saving regulations.