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Stoney proposes new funds for climate resilience grants

Mayor Stoney delivers remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Mayor Levar Stoney deliver his proposed budget to the City Council on Wednesday, March 27, 2024 at City Hall in Richmond, Virginia.

The program could help Richmond work with private organizations to target specific environmental burdens.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wants to recharge the Neighborhood Climate Resilience Grant program through his latest city budget proposal.

The program was previously funded with $865,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act, all of which was handed out in 2023 — leaving the fund empty this year. Stoney’s proposal, if approved by City Council, would set aside $250,000 from city coffers.

The NCR grants are intended to help the city realize goals outlined in RVAGreen2050: Climate Equity Action Plan 2030. That planning document calls for the city to reduce carbon emissions 45% by 2030, while focusing efforts on neighborhoods that are environmentally burdened by extreme heat, regular flooding, high energy costs and more.

By offering grants to groups working on neighborhood-level projects, the city hopes to respond to concerns expressed by residents of those neighborhoods during the RVAGreen planning process and subsequent engagement.

Most of the projects approved in the initial round of funding are granular: the James River Association received funds for stormwater runoff control projects at Richmond libraries; the Richmond Tree Stewards received cash for eastside tree planting projects; and Bridging the Gap in Virginia got money to install rainwater collection systems and solar-powered water pumps at community gardens.

The grants can also be applied to broader projects that would help the city allocate resources based on need in the future.

One such grant, given to the Charlottesville-based Community Climate Collaborative in 2023, fits that description. C3 received $20,000 to complete a study on how much household income is spent on energy. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, 6% of household income constitutes a high energy burden.

“It becomes even more dangerous and can cause housing instability if it's more than 10% of your income,” said Susan Kruse, executive director of C3.

A 2020 ACEEE report found that Richmond’s median energy burden is 2.6%. But that number is 8.2% among low-income households.

“I think everyone knows that energy costs are rising, that energy costs can make housing unsustainable, that there's urban heat risk,” Kruse said. “But the local numbers in the local data often drive decision-makers toward action and help the city really refine its programs so that they are being delivered to those who need the relief the most.”

A 2020 study done by C3 in Charlottesville found that energy burden was spread unevenly in the city. In one census tract, 54% of households had a high energy burden.

About 665,000 Virginia households carry that same burden, according to The Virginia Clean Energy Advisory Board. The board is required by state law to file a yearly report on its work administering the Low-to-Moderate Income Solar Loan and Rebate Fund — but the last time that report was filed was in 2022.

Stoney’s proposed budget also would increase funding for the Office of Sustainability from just under a million dollars last year to $1.56 million in Fiscal Year 2025.

The additional cash would go toward employee benefit programs and increased compensation, which the city said are normal adjustments. The office would also receive money to hire additional staff — one executive assistant and one management analyst to help with the office’s grant work.

OOS staff are responsible for more than just the city-based NCR grants. Director Laura Thomas told VPM News in 2023 that she wants Richmond to take advantage of climate programs created by the Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan Act.

“I'm personally committed to making sure that the city of Richmond becomes the story of how the IRA, the Inflation Reduction Act, can transform a community,” Thomas said. “There's billions of dollars allocated through [federal programs] to address climate issues, and I want to make sure that we're driving those dollars here in our community.”

Kruse said OOS staff also assisted C3 in securing a U.S. Department of Energy Communities Local Energy Action Program grant, which will go toward taking stock of the city’s commercial buildings and their environmental impact.

All of the proposed funding for the NRC grant program and OOS is subject to the approval of City Council, which will vote on Stoney’s budget in May. Public work sessions on the budget are scheduled to begin March 1 at city hall.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.