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In recent years, advocates’ push for development without displacement in California has been incorporated into state grant-making pilot programs like the Equitable Community Revitalization Grant. Investments in urgently needed low-income housing, public transportation, and environmental improvements across the state have often threatened the stability of the communities who most need them. In order to confront these issues, policymakers, community advocates, and equitable development experts have been working together on localized policy and grant programs to advance development without displacement in disadvantaged communities across California.  

As part of funding provisions from a 2021 state law, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has been tasked with administering the Equitable Community Revitalization Grant (ECRG) program, which allocates over $250 million in grants to support brownfield cleanup and redevelopment efforts in disadvantaged communities across California. “Brownfields” is a term for land contaminated with toxins that is unsafe for human use and local ecosystems. Brownfields are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color due to the legacy of racial residential segregation that restricted these communities to areas with heavy industry, and impunity toward industrial polluters. The ECRG program allocates grant funding to investigations, planning, and development projects that will conduct proper cleanup and deliver a range of co-benefits to communities surrounding project sites, such as affordable housing, green space, and jobs. ECRG also targets funding to communities most in need by prioritizing projects in the state’s top 25 percent most environmentally burdened census tracts, using CalEnvironScreen, and tracts with more than 50 percent of the population in poverty. 

The first of three rounds of ECRG funding was administered in 2022, but with round 2 under way and round 3 coming up in 2024, DTSC has enlisted a team from the Othering and Belonging Institute (OBI) as consultants in collaboration with community advocates from the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) to revamp the program guidelines, application, and scoring criteria to better prioritize projects committed to equitable development.  

Over the past few months, DTSC, OBI, and CEJA have been working together to make various improvements to the ECRG program, placing an emphasis on measures that will lead to development without displacement in the many vulnerable communities where funding is being directed.  

To facilitate this collaborative ECRG work, DTSC invited OBI and CEJA members to a three-day retreat in February 2023 to discuss feedback and recommendations for improving the equity and environmental justice alignment of ECRG applications and project selection. OBI members offered input based on years of experience working on community benefits agreements and collaborative community-based work, and CEJA members brought their perspective and expertise as community leaders and organizers working on the ground to advance equity and environmental justice in their communities. This environmental justice retreat opened a discussion that centered such priorities as proper cleanups, affordable housing, community engagement, anti-displacement measures, technical assistance, and more recommendations from activists and researchers.

Several elements of the ECRG guidelines and grant process demonstrate significant shifts on the part of DTSC toward equitable development and environmental justice. These include: 

  • Requirement that cleanup on any “sensitive site” (health clinic, housing, school, etc) as its future use be done to the highest level of clean up, where no future deed restriction on use is required. 
  • No projects can support a future use that increases pollution in the area, such as a warehouse or heavy industry. 
  • Projects must make Community Benefits Commitments with specific strategies and outcomes, such as increased local ownership, contracting and hiring,  access to green infrastructure and open space, community-serving programs and services, enhanced mobility options, and others. 
  • Specific standards for accountable community engagement, using the Spectrum of Public Participation and requiring a minimum level of “Involvement” for investigations and cleanup projects.

The incorporation of these equitable grant making elements into the ECRG, and the collaboration of DTSC, OBI, and CEJA is a promising development in the path towards development without displacement. DTSC is not without its own history of harm imposed upon various communities across California as a result of negligence and lax enforcement of hazardous materials regulations and permitting. Cases like the Exide Residential Cleanup and Jordan Downs Redevelopment in Los Angeles County are examples from recent memory. To see the department working alongside EJ advocates is a reassuring signal of the shift towards greater accountability in redevelopment projects, and this relationship, though still in its beginning stages, could set a precedent for other collaborations between the state government and community leaders to build out similar programs rooted in equitable development commitments. And while ECRG has a limited timeline of three funding rounds, the work going into this program could lead to long-term relationships and collaborations that support development without displacement as common practice moving forward, and potentially continued rounds of similar grant funding for years to come.  

Andre Soucy is a graduate student research assistant at the Othering & Belonging Institute. He is a second-year Master of City Planning student at UC Berkeley. Andre worked in transportation planning research for 4 years at the University of Florida, where he completed a B.S. in Civil Engineering. 

Ramon Quintero is the equitable planning analyst at the Othering & Belonging Institute. As part of the community power and policy partnerships program, he supports collaborative research projects to evaluate State sponsored pilot programs that seek to improve equity around environmental, transportation, land use, housing, and economic justice. 

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the authors.