We’ve been learning an enormous amount on our Road Trip, particularly inspired by what we have learned in Buffalo. Today, Roxanne and I share some of what we’ve learned.
Today we focus on PUSH Buffalo, thus far the single most remarkable organization we have found on our Road Trip. PUSH Buffalo has become a huge non-profit addressing a myriad of urban challenges. The links included will take you to a more detailed description of the various components of their operations. Reading their website doesn’t convey the depth and scope of the work done by PUSH; we got a better appreciation for what they are achieving by meeting with one of their organizers and seeing first hand the impact of their work. Truly, our visit to Buffalo will have made our entire journey worthwhile. I am providing a bit of background info below and then Roxanne describes our visit in more detail.
Roxanne Describes PUSH Buffalo: While visiting with Harper Bishop at OPEN Buffalo (for Tuesday’s blog on Open Buffalo, click here), I remarked that Buffalo seemed to have a large “international community,” as I called it. Harper explained that Buffalo is a “resettlement city,” friendly to refugees from around the world. Unlike “asylum seekers,” refugees apply in advance before arriving to the U.S. If refugees are approved for resettlement, they usually come from refugee camps, where the average stay is more than 10 years! The majority of Buffalo’s refugees come from five countries: Myanmar, Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many people attribute Buffalo’s growth and development of the last decade to refugee immigrants. Some of Buffalo’s most blighted areas have become trendy, vibrant communities as a result of what some call a “Refugee Renaissance.” Buffalo’s West Side was once a crime-filled neighborhood where the low cost of housing made it a popular location for refugee resettlement. Today, it’s one of downtown Buffalo’s hippest neighborhoods because of refugees’ multicultural infusion.
With an introduction from Harper, we headed over to meet with Christian Para, the lead organizer for PUSH Buffalo, at their offices on Buffalo’s West Side. PUSH stands for People United for Sustainable Housing, (read more about PUSH Buffalo by clicking on this link) and for the past 10 years, the organization has been purchasing vacant homes on the West Side and renovating them. Renovations include energy-efficient features to help lower renters utility bills: dense-pack cellulose insulation, on-demand hot water heaters, radiant floor heating, and solar and geo-thermal power. All of the homes built or renovated by PUSH are rented at below-market rates, stabilized at roughly 33% of residents’ overall income. This approach promotes “development without displacement” on the West Side neighborhood, something we might learn from to avoid gentrification in Santa Fe’s few remaining low-income neighborhoods near downtown! [PG: Santa Fe University of Art & Design?]
PUSH trains local interns and community members in sustainable building trades and hires them to renovate and/or build new west side homes. They also train neighborhood homeowners to renovate their own homes and make them more energy efficient. Christian’s current crew of interns come from Yemen, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Christian took us on a tour of PUSH’s West Side building projects, including their latest, School 77, a public school that was abandoned and empty for 15 years, then purchased from the City for $1. School 77 opened two days before we arrived, with 30 units of affordable 1 and 2-bedroom apartments ($285 – $575), and the bottom floor devoted to community meeting space, a community gym, and an auditorium for a local theater company. School 77 is a good example of how to transform an existing, abandoned property into a community-friendly, multi-use space that supplies truly low-income housing and a hub for community members of all ages. The same mixed use principle could be applied to libraries, existing schools, community centers and virtually any public facility. In the absence of community centers in Santa Fe’s southside, a simple school-city partnership could open the doors on the weekends and evenings and provide an array of parent and child services.
The driving force behind PUSH’s success is community organizing. They use a block-by-block model, having deep conversations with neighborhood residents before undertaking any project in the community. They rally residents and allies to participate in direct-action and legislative campaigns to bring resources and a better quality of life to the West Side community. PUSH also has directed a significant number of successful campaigns each of which begin with community member input which guides the focus and scope of every PUSH project, another approach that we in Santa Fe can learn much from. Among the other PUSH initiatives:
- High Road Economic Development is a project of Open Buffalo with PUSH Buffalo as a partner. HRED advocates to ensure that the community benefits from economic development programs and projects (especially those that receive taxpayer support) through quality jobs, education and training, local and minority business opportunities, and green design and operations, with an initial focus on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the WNY Regional Economic Development Council, and the New York Power Authority.Critical pieces of a Buffalo “high road” economy are fair practices and conditions in local workplaces. HRED’s Worker Equity partners address poverty, inequity, and training needs among workers, particularly minorities, refugees, youth, and ex-offenders, with a special focus on those working temporary and contingent jobs. They work to expose workplace injustices (including wage theft and unsafe working conditions) and to empower workers to understand and advocate for their rights. Click here for more on High-Road Economic Development.
- Responsible Banking, PUSH Buffalo’s role in the collaborative campaign to promote responsible banking is worth an entire blog post in and of itself. For an article on Buffalo’s responsible campaign, click here
Roxanne and Paul
In Rochester on Tuesday, we met with the Director of Innovation and an Executive Aide to a remarkable young activist Mayor, Lovely Warren (gotta love that name) but then we headed out to the Finger Lakes and briefly toured their wine country. We got up on Wednesday, Independence Day, by making ourselves temporarily independent of the US and drove to Montreal, the first of three stops in Canada before getting really serious on the Road Trip and visiting Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Madison, Nashville….and so forth. Onward!