This fall, the Urban Design Forum is launching Cooperative Works, an initiative exploring how New York City can advance economic justice in its coronavirus recovery. In partnership with Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives J. Phillip Thompson and the Mayor’s Office of M/WBE, our Fellows will conduct research on how to create economic opportunity for MWBEs and employee-owned businesses through climate investment, leveraging the new market for building energy retrofits created by Local Law 97.
Leading up to the program, we are pleased to publish a series of interviews with leaders in sustainability in the built environment, inclusive economic development, and racial justice. In our interview with Daphany Rose Sanchez, Executive Director of Kinetic Communities Consulting, we discuss building a small business in the energy efficiency sector, supporting MWBEs as part of a just transition, and achieving energy equity.
Katherine Sacco: How did you get involved in energy equity work?
Daphany Rose Sanchez: It was honestly completely accidental. I’ve been working in the New York space for 12 years now. I started working with Councilmember Julissa Ferraras on supporting community constituents that had environmental housing issues, and that led me to studying construction management and civil engineering in undergrad.
I’m a proud native New Yorker, and I’m a third generation NYCHA resident. Growing up in public housing, there’s a mentality that you are less than everyone else because you live in public housing and it’s decrepit. But you don’t really understand the context of why it is decrepit. It wasn’t until undergrad that I started learning about disinvestment and everything the government has done to create this context, from using eminent domain to take away Black people’s homes to building this public housing and then not investing in operation and maintenance or capital improvements. It was infuriating to learn that at such an older age. I started saying to my family, “Listen, we’re really being fed a narrative from before we were born, and it’s not okay. And it’s a very racist narrative that’s created intentionally to keep our communities down.”
My parents were aggressively trying to fight that narrative. In 2011 they purchased a home. They were the first ones in our family to buy a home, and everyone was so excited because it was a huge achievement. In October 2012, we were in the house, and I was working on my final thesis paper for undergrad, and water just started pouring in from everywhere. It was Hurricane Sandy. My windows broke, my floors broke. We waited and waited on the roof for hours, and we got rescued by boat. We were fortunate enough that we get rescued because our house was completely submerged after we were rescued.
It took about two weeks for us to go back to the house because they weren’t allowing anyone into the neighborhood. And when we went back, I was in shock. I remember thinking, I don’t know what to do. I’ve learned about my history: being a public housing resident, being Puerto Rican in New York City, my black ancestors. My choice could be to give up and say, “This isn’t worth it, because the system is already designed for me and my family to not move forward.” What’s the point of fighting a 400-year-old system? It took me about a month to get myself up, with my family and friends’ help.
I went back to school, and my civil engineering professors offered to come do some structural analysis for my family and the people in my neighborhood. I started working at Make the Road, because they were providing social services to people in the neighborhood but they didn’t have a technical person on their team who knew about structural analysis and engineering. I got the folks from my university to work with Make the Road and Occupy Staten Island to help people. I was literally translating in Spanish: “They are saying your frames are damaged.” It was not that hard to translate technical language from English to Spanish. But there was another type of translation: actually translating the technical terminology into something very basic. I continued working in translating resiliency and efficiency to common-sense English and also worked on sustainability program design and implementation that supports rather than displaces Black and brown communities.
As I’ve continued diving deeper and deeper into this work at DEP, at Solar One, and then at a firm called ICF, my teams started becoming more and more white, and fewer and fewer New Yorkers. I have nothing against non-New Yorkers, but if we’re doing work in New York, let’s make sure New Yorkers are involved. I didn’t want to own a business, but I realized that the only way to really make change was by starting my own MWBE. I told ICF, where I was working at the time, “I’m going to start this MWBE. If you’re interested, I’ll be your partner. If not, you’re going to have to figure out how to tell folks that I’m no longer working here.” It was very scary.
Thankfully, they were supportive. I actually opened my company a year before I told them, so that I could get all of my documentation in order. When I told them, they said, “Well, you have to do your MWBE certification.” I was like, “Done.” Do you have an EIN number? Done. Do you have your corporation documents? Done. I was like, “Any other questions? Because I’m ready for them.”
So, in 2017 Kinetic Communities was launched, and then I left ICF in 2018. Within two months, we had our first government contract with the Retrofit Accelerator. That was the long journey of how that all started.
KS: That is quite the journey! Your point about making sure that people who have firsthand experience with the effects of climate change are at the table when decisions are being made about how the city responds is so crucial.
DRS: It’s absolutely essential. I can’t go to someone who has experienced a forest fire and be like, “Well, will this help?” I don’t know, I’ve never experienced it. But I can tell you for damn sure what to do to avoid a flood.
KS: What kind of work have you been doing over the past couple of years with Kinetic Communities?
DRS: We’ve really focused on projects that are centered on energy efficiency and energy equity. I’m not interested in just doing energy efficiency projects for the sake of climate change. Climate change is real for me, and we need to stop talking about it as something in the future because it’s happening today. I also believe that we’re going to achieve fossil-free net zero by 2050. But I also know — and this is my concern — that we’re going to do it on the backs of Black and brown communities. We’ve seen transitions like this happen throughout history, and we do it successfully, but our communities are always the ones that have to carry that burden. The projects that I’ve worked on are focused on elevating our communities.
The first project I worked on was the Retrofit Accelerator, which supported affordable housing to integrate energy efficiency without sacrificing affordability. We’ve seen approximately 48,000 units of affordable housing do energy efficiency projects over the course of that project. I’m very proud of the project because we’ve been able to work very closely with HPD to acquire financing.
“I also believe that we’re going to achieve fossil-free net zero by 2050. But I also know — and this is my concern — that we’re going to do it on the backs of Black and brown communities.”
We are also working with NYCHA to support community solar. In the solar industry, there are very few minority-certified contractors and there are very few folks that have been transitioned from their regular electrical or roofing work into solar. We put together a 100% MWBE team to design, finance, and educate NYCHA residents on community solar. It was extremely hard, but we did it. We wanted to do community solar for the benefits of low-income subscribers and the benefits of jobs, but we also want to give NYCHA residents an opportunity to see someone else in their communities, saying, “Here I am in the flesh. This is a job opportunity that you can do.” I’m not some random white guy from California saying, “I’m going to put solar in,” and then disappearing. We wanted it to be a very inclusive process.
Another project I’m very excited about is Electrify SI. We are finding mechanisms for Staten Island homeowners and renters to purchase air source heat pump technology utilizing either HPD financing or emergency repair grants. We are also working to elevate minority and women contractors who are doing general construction work in residential space, home improvement work, plumbing work, and HVAC work. We’re aiming to support MWBE contractors that are not certified for energy efficiency work to become certified. In the energy efficiency space, you have to be certified to utilize the incentives that are out there. A lot of times that certification process is very lengthy and exhausting, and then there is a huge insurance requirement, too.
We have someone on our team that’s going to advise contractors: helping them acquire the documentation, helping them submit the documentation, connecting them to resources at SBS where they’ll be learning about accounting 101 and business operations. We also have a manufacturer partner who is going to be training them about air source heat pumps. Then, in 10 years, when the city says, “No more fossil fuel, no more furnaces, no more boilers,” these contractors won’t have to close shop or rush to figure out a new technology, while these other larger firms have already been established.
KS: That’s such an exciting array of work. It’s really powerful to hear you describe how you, as an MWBE, work to uplift and support other MWBEs. Why is it so important for New York to invest in MWBEs in this sector?
DRS: I’m going to use the case of public housing as an example. Public housing was designed, and then there was disinvestment. When folks think about the disinvestment, they think about operation, but the other part of operation is who is doing that maintenance and operation. If there are no funds for that, and there isn’t anyone who is properly trained for maintenance and operation in those neighborhoods, it’s going to be a bust.
In this transition to a fossil-free future, New York is receiving experts from all over the world who are providing their feedback on what new technologies need to be implemented, how many passive houses we need to get done, etc. This is great, but if the experts are not in-house — and by in-house, I mean in every city, and specifically MWBE contractors — you run the risk of having a failed market transition. It’s so essential for the City to support MWBEs by connecting them to available resources and opportunities. There are opportunities that people aren’t aware of because they’re not within those circles. And it’s not their fault. They’re busy trying to make money, and especially after COVID, they’re trying to survive. It’s not enough to then tell them, “You need to go look up this website and read through this 30-page document and decipher the document.”
“It’s so essential for the City to support MWBEs by connecting them to available resources and opportunities.”
There is a big opportunity for SBS to provide technical advisory services for contractors to understand the technology. The same way that they do Cost Estimating 101, they should be doing Solar 101, Air Source Heat Pumps 101, Building Envelope 101. I know the moment that contractors hear from other routes — not only SBS, but also Univision, El Diario, culturally and linguistically appropriate media sources — you will get an influx of folks who have experience, who you and I have never even met, and they’ve been doing it for 40+ years. That’s really going to help us to sustainably move forward.
KS: In order to meet our fossil-free goals in a way that really is equitable, what are the big leaps that we need to we need to be making in New York City or state to achieve that?
DRS: We should be looking at public power and community ownership models. In the big picture, the framework of climate action and climate solutions is really driven from a profit standpoint, which hurts our communities. There needs to be an opportunity to elevate MWBEs and local nonprofits. We need to provide them with the proper resources, the proper money, the proper time, and the proper expertise for them to collectively uplift their neighborhoods, rather than taking an approach where we’re looking for another business model.
KS: Any final words of wisdom that you want to share?
DRS: For folks in the energy sector, there needs to be an opportunity to not only hire folks but really create an inclusive environment to welcome diverse leadership. The market is driven by folks who are white males of a higher socioeconomic class. Understanding how that privilege projects itself onto your work and being careful of that will be one place to start. We also need to ensure that the people who build the table that people are sitting around are part of conversations about a just transition.
Energy efficiency and clean energy will be very valuable to preserving housing, developing intergenerational wealth, building a healthier community. I wholeheartedly believe that this can be a solution that supports all of these other issues.