From the Ruins talked to New York State gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins this weekend as he sat in his apartment on Syracuse’s south side. Hawkins, who is running under the Green Party banner, sees New York’s future as one of population growth once drought and heat waves become unmanagable for states like Texas and Arizona. A Dartmouth alumnus, Hawkins works as a Teamster loading trucks for UPS by night and promotes Green Party ideals by day as one of the founders of the movement which has been pushing for environmental consciousness and social equality since its first meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1984.
FR:Cities like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester have been losing population since the 1950′s. If you were elected Governor of New York what would you do about issues of abandonment that affect most New York cities?
HH: We have this Green Jobs / Green New York program that passed this year that’s kind of stuck in NYSERDA, where they are not drawing up regulations that bring in workforce development for people from lower-income minority communities. But, they have a goal of rehabbing 1 million homes in five years, and I think we need to scale that up to all 7 million homes and all the other structures in New York in 10 years. And also the retrofits got to be stronger than what they are doing. They are mainly doing insulation and tightening up the buildings shell so they don’t lose heat so fast, but I think we need to scale that up so that we are putting solar heating and solar electric panels on the buildings wherever possible, we’re putting small-scale wind throughout our urban areas, we have natural wind tunnels between buildings and that can pay. We need to put it in the smart grid so that when you generate excess you put it in the grid.
FR: How would you like to see these abandoned houses used in upstate municipalities?
HH: With the housing that is salvageable we can rehab those buildings into affordable housing. It can be part of local housing authorities if we can’t sell them to home buyers. The rehab costs, we might subsidize that so people can buy that at an affordable cost and become homeowners. I think you need both programs. The buildings that are not salvageable need to be torn down in such a way that you salvage materials that you can use for reconstructing the buildings that can be salvaged.
FR:Why should upstate cities be preserving any abandoned houses when the trends of population loss shows no signs of changing?
HH: We should preserve this stock, and not just tear it down because right now we’re short of people, because we need to do two things. One is having more compact development instead of sprawl. We should have urban growth boundaries on what is already built up in places like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester. We have a real problem of sprawl. Syracuse, for example, and most of the upstate urban areas, has had development without growth. In other words, the size of the population hasn’t grown but the size covered by urban development has tripled or quadrupled since the fifties. We have some of the worst sprawl in the country. We just don’t look as bad because we have trees, compared to say Phoenix or Fresno or L.A.
FR: If elected Governor what sort of policies would you initiate to prevent or discourage sprawl and over development?
HH: Whatever growth we are going to have should be redeveloping the core of the cities because that’s a more efficient way to use resources, both energy and other materials that support infrastructure. You’ve got to remove land use planning from the town and city level and move it to the metropolitan level. That should be where land use plans are made. Zoning would then be in the framework of a regional plan. The boards should be publicly elected not appointed so that you don’t get crony capitalism and the developers capturing them. But that’s the only way to stop sprawl. We have sprawl right now so that we’ve got towns competing over tax base, so they’ll approve just about anything. They’ll sprawl right through the towns for municipal finance reasons. We need regionalization that shares taxes and coordinates planning.
FR: How might regional planning be beneficial for New York State?
HH:For example, Portland, Oregon is set in an urban growth boundary so all development happens within that boundary. They’re not sprawling out around the Portland area. They’re having more compact development. What you want to create are more walkable communities where you’ve got homes, shops for what people need, schools, as many jobs as possible and parks and other civic amenities within walking distance. Then you need to make the streets safe for pedestrians and bicycles, they call them complete streets, so they have sidewalks, crosswalks, speed bumps, so cars can still go in there but it’s more convenient to walk or ride your bike. And then we need mass transit. We need to make mass transit more economical and convenient than having a private car for most types of travel.
FR: In a state that is going through a budget crisis and already has high taxes, why do you think that it is important to invest public money into preserving our excess housing stock?
HH: Because of our water resources and growing drought in the south west due to global warming, people are going to be coming to New York because we’ve got water, as long as we don’t hydrofrac the landscape and pollute the water. Blistering heat waves in the south because of global warming, the north is going to look a lot better. I think we need to preserve the housing stock that has been built.
I think rehabbing, retrofitting the existing housing stock and preserving it for redeveloping the inner cities would be sound from the environmental point of view and the urban design point of view, but it’s also one of the ways to get people back to work. But it will take public investment. The markets are not going to solve this on their own. Financial markets won’t lend to it and the housing market has always not provided affordable housing to a significant part of the population. So, we need to revitalize the public sector, and that’s what makes the Green Party platform fundamentally different from the Democrats and the Republicans. Because they now want to scale back the public sector and, basically, they want to wait for the debts in the economy to be de-leveraged. They want the banks to get paid back before they start the economy again which means years and years of high unemployment and depression. Maybe that’s good for bankers but it’s not good for the rest of us.
AV contributor Justin Sondel’s blog is From the Ruins.