[Testimony by PUSH Buffalo member Luz Velez before the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation on May 17, 2019 in New York City. The purpose of the hearing was to examine how best to address the impacts of climate change on communities and the workforce]
Good afternoon. My name is Luz Velez. Thank you for giving me a voice at this very important hearing. I am a resident of Buffalo, NY and a proud member of PUSH Buffalo, a grassroots community-based organization on the West Side of the city. I’m here today to urge all of you and your colleagues in state government to support the passage of the Climate and Community Protection Act (A3876/S2992)…
Ya hear me?
I moved to Buffalo in 1980 to pursue a degree at Buffalo State College. I graduated in 1985 with a BS in Social Work and a minor in Afro-American history. That same year I became the full-time Senior Services Director at Hispanics United of Buffalo. In 1993 I had my son Felipe and became a single mom. Five years later I bought my first and only home, the one I live in to this day, after moving 9 times from unhealthy and toxic apartments. And then in 2006 I became seriously ill and was medically retired. Throughout my entire adult life residing on the West Side I’ve lived in close proximity to the Peace Bridge, an international commercial crossing for most trucks and large vehicles traveling between the U.S. and Canada. As a result, I’ve been exposed to diesel truck emissions all this time, and even those times when vehicle emission standards were much more relaxed.
Over the years I started developing a lot of non-descript respiratory lung infections, which sometimes left me wondering if I had a permanent cold or allergies. As my health deteriorated I received from my doctors a 6 month to one year life expectancy diagnosis. A state of depression quickly settled in and I physically, emotionally, and spiritually lost my voice. My doctors determined the source of the infection was environmental factors due to mold and air pollution. Due to my health conditions, and accompanying financial hardship resulting from my unemployability and loss of wages, this single mom’s house fell into disarray and disrepair. I experienced a lot shame. I feared losing my home to gentrification and disinvestment, or to a failing health and safety inspection. I even feared losing my kid. My isolation led to the devastation of my health, home, and humanity.
I heard over the radio about PUSH Buffalo’s Warm and Dry and roof repair program one Saturday. By Monday, I met a canvasser from PUSH who was in the neighborhood and I quickly set up an appointment for an energy audit to assess the conditions in my home. After completing some paperwork I was placed on a waiting list for services. I’ll never forget the day the phone rang and I learned it would be a matter of weeks before contractors would enter my home to assess the problems and work with PUSH to come up with solutions that I believe would save my life and save my home.
When the contractors arrived and completed their assessment we quickly learned how serious the problems were. The roof in the back of my house had collapsed. Because of the roof damage there was black mold throughout the back of the house. It had permeated into the walls and into the HVAC system. I found out I needed a new furnace – the existing furnace hadn’t been serviced since 1972. I also needed a new hot water heater. The house had no insulation. For years I had been suffering from a cold house and high heating and electric bills from the use of portable space heaters. The bathtub on the second floor had caused extensive water damage and rot in the kitchen ceiling. And plaster was crumbling from the walls around my staircase. It was a hot mess to say the least. All of these issues contributed to my respiratory problems, put my mental health at risk, and threatened my life.
PUSH Buffalo provided a holistic solution that healed both me and my home. They made me feel comfortable in choosing a contractor that looked like me, that was from my community, made me feel comfortable in my own home, and that didn’t judge me. PUSH spent a lot of time talking with me and listening. They helped me find my inner strength and regain my voice. With the repairs made I went from 4 doctors down to 2, and from 12 meds to 4.
As the project was winding down I started going to PUSH meetings and learning about environmental racism – the factors outside of my control and the systemic oppression that people of color living in low income communities often face and fear. I began to understand how I was disproportionately exposed to the pollution in my community from diesel truck emissions as well as the toxic conditions in my home that were exacerbated by my lack of quality health care options and lack of access to capital. These and other environmental factors that I was exposed to led my doctors to wonder if in fact I suffered from cancer. I’ve come to learn more recently that in Erie County, home to nearly 50,000 Latinx people like me, cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants is 38% higher for people of color compared to white people, and exposure to air polluting facilities is approximately 2.8 times greater for people of color.
That ain’t right.
I’ve also heard recently that some of our so-called climate champions in New York State favor a carbon neutrality and offset solution to the climate and environmental crises that I experience first hand in my community.
Not on my watch.
Now is not the time to be neutral on anything when our people are getting sick and dying, our communities are ravaged by severe weather impacts, and the future that awaits our children and grandchildren is being sacrificed for the short term profits of corporate polluters. We need a just transition to a zero emissions, 100% renewable energy economy.
I’ve also heard that some of our so-called climate champions in New York State believe we can solve the climate crisis while ignoring environmental justice and racial equity. I refuse to be ignored. My community refuses to be ignored. We will not be silenced like I was silenced for so many years. The CCPA would commit 40% of climate and clean energy funding to communities like mine and people like me who have paid their fair share into the existing system. Its a no brainer really, since our communities make up 40% of the State’s population.
Justice and equity cannot be negotiated
Not on my watch
Recently, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown declared my city to be a “climate refuge.” And just last month the NY Times, in an article entitled, “Want to Escape Global Warming? These Cities Offer Cool Relief,” praised Buffalo as a destination where climate refugees will be welcome as the climate crisis worsens. In my mind, Mayor Brown and the author of this article weren’t talking about the nearly 10,000 Puerto Ricans displaced by hurricane Maria who were forced to resettle in my community under dire circumstances and have not received the support they deserve. Rather, their view on climate migration would seem to favor the investor class – those who are financially able to move and who would arrive in my community looking to take advantage of cheap land and housing and abundant fresh water resources. Without explicitly addressing justice and equity, as the CCPA does, climate solutions and climate migrations will threaten underrepresented people like me who will be at greater risk of gentrification and displacement. We will fall through the cracks and we will be silenced yet again. I refuse to be silenced. My community refuses to be silenced.
Pass the CCPA
Pass the CCPA as is
Pass the CCPA now