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Rehabilitation eases problems of poverty, warming

What is the biggest problem facing Buffalo? Many people would agree that it is our extreme poverty, with more than 40 percent of city children living in poverty.

What is the biggest problem facing the world? Many would suggest global warming, which threatens flooding, droughts, a massive increase in refugees, global insecurity and other catastrophic effects.

The good news is that there are proven ways to fight poverty and pollution simultaneously. This year, a class of law students and I wrote a report titled "Affordable Housing and the Environment in Buffalo, New York" to explore this set of problems (the full report is at http://

We learned that despite Buffalo's low home prices and rents, we have the nation's ninth least affordable housing market because of our poverty and our utility bills, which are 30 percent higher than the national average.

We also learned that residential housing causes 34 percent of Buffalo's greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from natural gas burned for heat and coal burned for electricity. In addition to global warming, air pollution causes many other harms, ranging from acid rain to chronic lung disease. (In a recent state study, 26 percent of Buffalo children tested had asthma.)

How can we start to make a difference? First, we can rehabilitate and weatherize our housing stock. Weatherization involves work such as sealing cracks, adding insulation and repairing or replacing old, inefficient furnaces. An average weatherization reduces carbon emissions by 1,350 pounds per year and lowers utility bills by $461 per year. Just replacing one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent saves about $50 and prevents 450 pounds of carbon emissions over its lifetime.

"Green housing" in Buffalo does not mean new construction. Because of declining population, Buffalo has excess housing and plans to demolish 1,000 units per year for 10 years. Unfortunately, each new home we build means one more home to demolish elsewhere in the city.

For now, we need to focus on saving our existing housing and making it energy efficient. Local nonprofits such as the Matt Urban Center, Neighborhood Housing Services of South Buffalo and New Buffalo Impact already provide weatherization services, but they need more funding even to begin to meet the need.

Expanding their services will have another benefit, as well: Weatherization and rehabilitation are an excellent source of living wage, "green-collar" jobs.

The city receives roughly $20 million from the federal government each year for affordable housing and community renewal. Little of that money goes toward housing rehabilitation and none goes toward weatherization. Shifting those funds is an important step toward a greener, more prosperous Buffalo.

Sam Magavern is an instructor with the University at Buffalo Law School's Affordable Housing Clinic.

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