How PUSH Buffalo Models Holistic, Equitable and Green Community Development

Written by: Lisa Ranghelli

Date: November 13, 2015

“Buffalo is going through a mini-renaissance, a building boom, which is great, but we need to look at the whole story,” explained Rahwa Ghirmatzion, director of programs for People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo. “The low-income working poor are being left out. We want everyone to have a boom.”

PUSH Buffalo was founded in 2005 to create affordable housing, decrease housing abandonment and develop resident leaders who could push for community control of neighborhood development. Since then, it has evolved into a complex, multi-issue membership organization that uses direct action community organizing to fight for housing, high road economic development, green living wage jobs, lower utility rates and equitable urban revitalization. It includes a non-profit housing arm, Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company (BNSC), which not only seeks to develop affordable housing and prevent displacement, but also rehabilitates empty lots. BNSC currently owns 50 lots that include green spaces, community gardens and rain garden demonstration projects.

BNSC is located in the Green Development Zone (GDZ), a 25-square block area of the city’s West Side where PUSH Buffalo has been concentrating its organizing efforts for the last decade, helping create new local and state laws to support their holistic vision for the neighborhood. It runs a hiring hall where neighborhood residents can secure living wage jobs in green infrastructure, such as landscaping, farming, weatherization, solar installation, green construction and storm water management.

PUSH Buffalo would like the GDZ to serve as a model for urban revitalization that other Rust Belt cities can embrace, and indeed, it has already received recognition from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Planning Association and others. Executive director and co-founder Aaron Bartley noted the significance of community development that is led by and for the most underserved residents of the city. “In the Green Development Zone, 75 percent of the board are residents living in poverty, and 80 percent are people of color. A lot of cities are pursuing a downtown redevelopment strategy, but that’s not an equity strategy.”

When the Kresge Foundation developed its new approach to environmental grantmaking, PUSH Buffalo became a grantee partner. “We’ve funded them since January 2013,” Kresge Environment Program director Lois DeBacker reported. She continued:

“Our current grant to PUSH Buffalo is housed in the Environment portfolio, but it’s a cross-program grant. It was supported with funds from Environment, Arts & Culture, Health and the cross-program fund. It highlights both what the Environment Program is interested in with respect to climate resilience and how we’re working at Kresge to bridge disciplines.”

The partnership between Kresge and PUSH Buffalo is the subject of the Philamplify video that accompanies NCRP’s report on the Kresge Foundation. The video covers PUSH’s work participating in Buffalo’s long-term control plan to stop raw sewage from flowing into the Niagara River. Over the next two years, PUSH will be given 234 vacant lots to create green infrastructure, including urban gardens and farms that prevent storm water from going into drains. They will complete these projects by hiring workers from the communities in which they’re working.

Ghirmatzion added:

“Kresge’s comprehensive approach to grantmaking aligns with PUSH’s comprehensive approach to community resilience that is rooted in people first, place and environmental sustainability. Through Kresge’s support, PUSH is committed to addressing climate change in Buffalo and empowering local residents in that solution.”

The multi-year Kresge grant includes funding for PUSH Buffalo to invest in internal capacity building during this time of very rapid growth in its programs, helping ensure the organization can follow through on its ambitious goal of making sure the city’s mini-renaissance spreads to its more marginalized neighborhoods and fosters environmental sustainability. The foundation’s support of PUSH Buffalo is a key example of how Kresge is able to incorporate its social justice framework into all program areas.

Lisa Ranghelli is director of foundation assessment at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation!