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Final Map of ‘Climate Disadvantaged’ Communities Now Includes Blocks Previously Excluded — But Other Vulnerable Areas Left Out

A block in Hollis, Queens, where a family died during Hurricane Ida is now considered a state priority. But a similar block in Woodside isn’t on the final map.

March 31, 2023 Samantha Maldonado, The City
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A state-appointed group of environmental justice advocates on Monday finalized a map of communities across New York that are considered “disadvantaged” and thus will be given priority when it comes to climate-related spending.

The state Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 — which mandates reductions of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions — specifies that “disadvantaged communities” are to receive at least 35% of total statewide spending on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

An earlier draft map did not designate as “disadvantaged” a historically flood-prone block in Hollis, Queens, where two people drowned in a basement apartment when Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021, as THE CITY reported last year.

The final version of the map now includes that block. Other blocks in Edgemere and South Jamaica, Queens, as well as in Flatbush, Brooklyn, have also been added to the final map.

“I’m thrilled they added it in there,” said Amit Shivprasad, who owns a house in Hollis with his family in which two residents of the basement apartment died in flooding from Hurricane Ida. “I can’t believe they didn’t see it the first time when they drew that map.”

But a census tract in Woodside, Queens, where a family of three died in a basement apartment during Hurricane Ida is not included as disadvantaged on the map. One climate analyst told THE CITY that such exclusions raise concerns that some actually disadvantaged communities could miss out on state funding.

Since Ida, Shivprasad has become an outspoken advocate for the neighborhood and its longtime struggles with floods. He applauded the new map as a way to hold the state accountable on its commitments.

“Now we can go back to the state and say, ‘Hey, what are we doing?’” he said. “I think this will make a difference, especially if they get the flood mitigation system going.”

Just this month, Shivprasad’s family moved back into their home after extensive repairs.

Is It Environmental Justice?

The state’s Climate Justice Working Group, composed of representatives from organizations that advocate for disproportionately pollution-burdened communities, was tasked with identifying the “disadvantaged” areas.

The state hired consultant Alex Dunn to devise a formula to factor in 45 data points to determine those census tracts. The formula includes racial and socioeconomic demographics and environmental and health data like emergency room visits for asthma-related symptoms.

The group welcomed public feedback in comments and at a series of meetings after it released a draft map last March.

The adoption of the final criteria “marks a significant milestone in New York’s ongoing work to achieve climate justice,” Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement.

Any household with an income under 60% of the state median income — about $66,000 for a family of four — is also considered “disadvantaged,” even if the area they live in is not. That means those households may not appear on the map.

On the map, large swaths of areas are marked as “disadvantaged,” including East New York, Red Hook and Bushwick in Brooklyn, much of Harlem, the north shore of Staten Island, Far Rockaway in Queens and nearly all of The Bronx.

Based on the formula, some parts of the Lower East Side and Astoria are included on the map, while others aren’t. The same is true in southeast Queens, where some blocks — such as those adjacent to the noise and air pollution of JFK Airport — are left out.

At the same time, parts of more affluent or gentrified neighborhoods — like Hudson Yards and the Williamsburg waterfront — have been designated as “disadvantaged.”

Some wealthy areas, like Sea Gate, a gated community on the western tip of Coney Island, have been removed.

For Natalie Bump Vena, an urban studies professor at Queens College who is studying how the state implements the climate law, there’s a disconnect between what the formula determined as “disadvantaged” and the reality of certain neighborhoods, in some cases.

“This whole process has privileged data availability over what people are really living with on the ground and that’s, to me, not environmental justice,” Vena said.

With billions of dollars at stake, she said she’s worried that some deserving communities could be missing out, while affluent individuals could take advantage of earmarked benefits.

“The danger is, without safeguards, this map could exacerbate inequality,” Vena said.

Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice and a member of the working group, noted that the criteria is “not the epitome of perfection” but it lays the groundwork to track commitments and outcomes.

“Now that we have this criteria, how are we going to see the state really use it the way that they’re meant to?” Jessel said. “It’ll be critical to see how the implementation goes and that’s something every community should be vigilant about: Are they getting the investments they deserve?”

The working group must meet each year to reexamine the criteria and can adjust as they see fit.

Vena said the group could expand to ensure accuracy when they take another look at the maps. She pointed out that the working group was supposed to consult with a permanent Environmental Justice Advisory Group within DEC to come up with the maps — but that advisory group was never appointed, despite a 2019 law requiring it.

“That would have brought more eyes on the creation of the disadvantaged communities criteria,” Vena said.

Katy Zielinski, a spokesperson for the governor, said the administration is “working to finalize” appointments for the advisory group.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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