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Town Council Candidate Sustainability and Diversity Survey

Amherst, Northampton and Pelham are currently discussing Community Choice Energy. Is this an idea you support? What are the advantages and disadvantages that you see?

I fully support Community Choice Energy (CCE). I see the following advantages of a CCE:

  1. Consumer Benefits: A CCE can collectively bargain and procure greener electricity at competitive rates. Further, they are not-for-profit entities, so they can pass on the benefits to consumer rather than shareholders in traditional investor-owned utilities (IOU). It Also gives more choice to customers, especially low-income households and renters who don’t have the financial capacity or ability to install their own solar panels. CCEs put pressure on IOUs to remain competitive so it benefits non-CCE members as well.  

  2. Environmental Benefits: CCEs can choose larger quantities of renewable energy resulting in lowering greenhouse gases. In California, for example, A UCLA report found that CCEs reduced 590,000 tons of CO2 in 2016, without changing consumption of energy among Californians.

  3. Local economy: CCEs provide education, job-trainings and new job opportunities in the community.

I don’t see any disadvantages in the policy itself but it’s implementation may involve challenges such as consumers’ fearing change to a new system or feeling like the government is forcing them to opt in. Such challenges can be overcome by educating people and dispelling any fears they may have. There may be other challenges in implementation such as “capacity costs” and “exit costs” that would make CCEs pricing more volatile. For example, In California CCEs are encountering the challenge of how their customers leaving the utility will be allocated the above-market costs of legacy utility procurement contracts purchased on their behalf or “exit fees.”  I don’t know if this is something that CCEs in Massachusetts will have to deal with as this would make their prices more volatile that would be hard to explain to customers. I would like more information about the regulatory risks and IOUs response to CCEs.

 

How will you explain to voters the initial costs and long-term savings of new Town-owned buildings under the Zero Energy Municipal Buildings bylaw?

I am committed to working towards making Amherst a carbon-neutral community. I will study the best practices examined and reported by independent agencies such as Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) and the MA State Zero Energy Building Task Force and speak with the concerned committees and experts to get scientific data before communicating with the residents about the costs and long-term savings of Zero Energy (ZE) Municipal Buildings.

The argument presented in the Zero Energy Amherst website for ZE buildings is that after the 16th year, the savings from the conservation measures to design a ZE building and renewable energy use will outweigh the cost of borrowing extra money (the extra cost is assumed to be 10%) to invest in a ZE building. Based on my correspondence with the people involved with ZE Bylaw, the data on their website is based on an estimate of the Hitchcock Center in Amherst, which is a single data point and I don’t know if there has been any effort to compare the estimates used in the graph with the actual costs and savings associated with the building. It is also important to know the assumptions made to arrive at those calculations and the costs included.

A frequent concern I am hearing from residents is the affordability of building ZE schools. In order to respond back to these concerns in an informed manner, I would need to know the breakdown of costs involved in building a ZE school and how the bylaw proposes meeting the upfront additional costs. Are there grants that can support the building of a ZE school or do we have revolving loan funds for efficiency investments? Can we show the actual costs of the more efficient renewable energy systems and design are less than people fear?

The successful deployment of ZE public buildings requires a comprehensive plan involving immediate and intermediate steps. NEEP, for example, created a roadmap to ZE public buildings that identifies critical next steps and intermediate steps to be taken in the next 10-15 years to make ZE buildings a widespread practice. Even though the ZE bylaw only applies to public buildings in Amherst, it’s efficacy depends upon having a practical and feasible roadmap, much like the one other regions are adopting. Some of the suggestions based on best practices for immediate steps noted in NEEP’s report are:

  1. Develop an information campaign: A comprehensive information campaign conveying is needed to communicate a consistent message to a broad audience about the latest research and developments in ZE buildings and renewable energy. This needs to be a well-planned effort coordinating the efforts across local organizations such as Mothers Out Front.

  2. Promote the development of exemplary public buildings: We can overcome the initial market resistance by promoting the ZE public buildings such as the ones highlighted on Mothers Out Front website.

  3. Documentation of ZE public buildings: The ZE public buildings should be carefully and thoroughly documented by an independent third party through out the different stages of building the ZE building. The Hitchcock center used as an example by the Zero Energy Amherst website should provide the documents depicting the costs and savings across the main phases of the project.

  4. Post occupancy data gathering: NEEP recommends a post occupancy study of ZE building energy use after three years of completion. Have we done that for the ZE buildings in Amherst?

  5. Implementing stretch building codes: These can help lay the groundwork for broader building codes over time.

As a District Councilor, I promise to do my research and stay objective and transparent with my findings. I would like to support the committees working on sustainability to ensure that we are rigorous with our research and have a comprehensive plan based on best practices successfully deployed in other communities to move towards a net-zero community. Further, I would like to see the creation of non-judgmental spaces for all stakeholders to be heard and invite relevant expertise to ensure that we are making thoughtful choices that supersede our personal opinions.

Finally, as district councilor I will ensure that residents have a venue to share their concerns and have correct and timely information.

 

What are your ideas for making Amherst more affordable for low and moderate income renters and owners?

The cost of housing is impacted by the demand and supply of housing in Amherst. Over 4,000 students live off-campus in Amherst and UMass has projected an increase in demand from student renters for approximately 2,000 beds by 2020. Further, most non-student renters can’t compete with students’ ability to pay. The Town can alleviate the shortage of affordable housing for low- and mid-income residents by addressing the problems on the demand side as well as supply side. The Amherst Housing Market Study in 2015 has good recommendations in this regard.

On the demand side, I would look at innovative solutions such as Private Public partnerships that allow UMass and Amherst College land to be leased out to private developers for student housing. That would free up off-campus housing for other populations and also generate revenue for the Town. UMass Boston and Northeastern are examples for such partnerships.

I support creative and appropriate development initiatives to increase the supply of housing for the Amherst community.  We have seen from recent approved projects that increased density can allow for our community affordable housing goals to be met. Encouraging mixed income and mixed-use developments in areas designated by the town’s Master Plan will allow for a diverse mix of housing to serve those at a range of incomes.

Amherst has been a leader in using new tools to encourage affordable housing development. In 2016, Amherst adopted an affordable housing tax incentive which was the first of its kind in the Commonwealth. 40R is a tool that has been successfully used in several Massachusetts communities to create mixed income and mixed-use developments in or adjacent to commercial centers. Helping developers understand and utilize these benefits in addition to providing expedited review process for Project Eligibility can incentivize developers to focus on workforce and affordable housing.

With careful planning by our town staff, boards and community members we can craft a 40R district that will support our community goals.

The town has an opportunity to help encourage affordable housing development by selling its underutilized parcels in appropriate locations a nominal price to developers who specialize in creating this type of housing.

I would like to see the successful implementation of inclusionary zoning.

I will support the work of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust to ensure that the homeless, low income, and mid-income residents comprising our teachers, nurses, fire-fighters, and employees in local business have affordable housing in Amherst.


 

If elected, what will you do to increase racial and class diversity in town government - from Council to committees?

As District 5 Councilor, I will reach out to low-income residents, immigrants, and people of color to understand the challenges they encounter in participating in our local government including committees. I will also do my best to share the reasons it’s important for them to engage in Town Council and committees. I will work with them to come up with solutions and resources that help them participate.

I would like to also create clear channels of communication that are accessible to diverse populations. These might include monthly opportunities to meet with me as well as online opportunities to stay in touch.

I would like to create safe and collaborative spaces for people with diverse backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging in our community. For example, one idea that came up in speaking with the owner of El Comalito and her son was to host an annual neighborhood party in South Amherst Village to bring together the local businesses and residents to share their stories and develop a caring community.

I will also do my research to look at how other college towns are increasing racial and class diversity in Town government.