A toxic history: Sacramento region’s minority communities face a legacy of environmental injustice

A UC Davis research team examines the toll of discriminatory land-use policies on neglected neighborhoods

Jermaine Gill is a neighborhood activist helping rebuild his community of Avondale Glen Elder.

Jermaine Gill is a neighborhood activist helping rebuild his community of Avondale Glen Elder.


This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the July 7, 2016, edition.

George Sim Park is like an oasis for the Avondale Glen Elder neighborhood in southeast Sacramento. On an early summer evening, the park abounds with kids braving the heat to practice for the Junior Giants baseball program. The smell of marijuana also drifts from the parking lot. One parent, Georgi Gill, takes note of the smoke.

“They aren’t supposed to do that here,” she said.

The park and the working-class community that surrounds it have seen their share of troubles, but also have people fighting for them.

It’s been an uphill battle.

The neighborhood is a prime spot for illegal dumping. It’s been impossible to get a grocery store built here. And the Sacramento Regional Transit District only recently restored bus service to this remote community, but only on a semiregular basis.

The most jarring thing to know about neighborhoods like Avondale Glen Elder is that they are this way by design—and that living in them can shave years off the lives of their residents.

As an October 2015 environmental justice report by the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis illustrated, minorities were pushed to outer neighborhoods like Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and south Sacramento during the 20th century through discriminatory land-use policies like racial covenants in housing deeds, which explicitly blocked properties from being sold to African-Americans, and “redlining,” which refers to the federal government’s denial of mortgages based on race and ethnicity.

A concept that has become known as “environmental injustice” soon flourished.

The term refers to the idea that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are saturated with environmental hazards and “systematically excluded from decision-making that could prevent or mitigate their effects,” Jonathan London, director of the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, wrote in a March 6 op-ed for the Davis Enterprise.

The UC Davis report, which a research team developed over three years, is the first attempt at quantifying the hidden dangers facing disadvantaged communities in the six-county Sacramento region, in the hopes of finally spurring some change.

It represents a legacy of injustice that’s hidden in plain sight.

“In Sacramento, we’ve never really owned that narrative,” said Katie Valenzuela Garcia, who contributed to the report and serves on the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee for the California Air Resource Board.

Like other ignored neighborhoods in the region, the Avondale community has lived this reality for decades. Some of its residents say they are working to change the narrative—and they may have an outside shot at doing so—but can they reverse the tide of history?

While redlining formally ended with the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the practice unofficially endured and is present even today. The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, which hit minorities particularly hard, was only the latest example.

“This instability has made it difficult for low-income people and people of color to protect themselves from hazardous environmental conditions in their neighborhoods,” the UC Davis report asserts. “It also created obstacles to attracting and maintaining positive land uses, such as parks, grocery stores, schools, and living-wage jobs.”

It also makes these neighborhoods easy targets.

Around 2007, Sacramento Natural Gas Storage offered some Avondale Glen Elder residents $500 signing bonuses and $500 a year thereafter to allow eight billion cubic feet of natural gas to be stored in the ground beneath their homes.

Some residents signed up before others began asking questions about the risks, like the possibility of a gas leak that resulted in a deadly PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2011. The Avondale Glen Elder Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit and appeal to the California Public Utilities Commission.

“The community clearly did not want this thing in its midst,” said Colin Bailey, one of the attorneys who worked on the case and executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

The association won its appeal and favorably settled its lawsuit four years ago, but has had trouble addressing other longstanding hazards.

Located near the city dump, the neighborhood is a popular dumping ground for everything from old lawnmowers to couches to bedroom sets.

“It’s your random, garden variety of useless stuff,” Gill said.

Then there’s the neighborhood’s ongoing challenge with transportation.

Burrowed south of Power Inn Road, it’s miles from a freeway in any direction, requiring a long trek over city streets, adding to neighborhood traffic and pollution. RT has a light-rail station at Power Inn Road, though it’s drastically cut bus service in this area since the economic downturn, including eliminating one of the area’s only bus routes, Route 8, in 2010.

RT finally reinstated the route, renaming it Route 65, in September, after years of agitating by people like Michelle Pariset of Capital Region Organizing Project. But service is still scarce: hourly, Monday through Friday, with no weekend service.

Gill has always had a car while living in Avondale Glen Elder, but says she’s seen how bus service reductions have affected her neighbors. “I know that it upended a lot of people’s lives out here,” she said.

Not having a car in outlying neighborhoods makes it difficult to do simple things like shop for healthy food. A lack of grocery stores is a common, chicken-and-egg problem in lower income neighborhoods. Grocery chains sometimes won’t enter areas without desired income and population bases. Prospective residents, in turn, avoid areas without these stores.

Jermaine Gill, Georgi’s husband, has lobbied for years to get a grocery store built at a vacant lot at the corner of Power Inn and Elder Creek roads. But his efforts have been frustrated, he said, by the lot’s owner holding onto the land for a higher price.

The cumulative effects of a neighborhood’s “proximity to significant environmental hazards and a lack of environmental amenities,” as the UC Davis report put it, can be life-threatening, say those who contributed to it.

“It just starts getting worse and worse and worse,” said Valenzuela Garcia, who led a community policy forum after the report came out. “You have a 10-year life expectancy [difference] between Valley Hi and south Sacramento and a neighborhood just two miles north of them.”

Residents will get a chance to discuss the issues plaguing the area during a July 13 meeting at the George Sim Community Center. Members of the Avondale Glen Elder Neighborhood Association admit these meetings have been poorly attended in the past.

“If we have 20 people show up to one of our [regular] meetings, that’s amazing,” said association President Nailah Pope-Harden.

“We see more of an influx of people from the community when there’s a free event, when we’re offering free food and activities,” Georgi Gill added. “And then they’ll all come for that, and then we’ll offer the community, ‘Hey, we have these meetings. You can come out, you can put your voice in.’ Nobody ever shows up.”

While it might be tempting to blame apathy, decades of institutional neglect have sent a powerful message to this neighborhood: No one is listening.

The Gills have been involved in the neighborhood for almost as long as they’ve resided here.

“I think what got me interested and more involved is, I can either be the problem or I can be the solution,” said Jermaine Gill, who coaches in the Junior Giants program, does asthma-related volunteer work, and helped battle Sacramento Natural Gas Storage.

Pope-Harden recalled her motivation to return to Avondale Glen Elder after graduating from Sacramento State University. “It was like survivor’s remorse almost, the Harriet Tubman complex,” she said.

Residents may be getting a sympathetic ally in Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg.

During his mayoral campaign, the former Senate president pro tem said he would use his political connections to pull down more local dollars through the state’s cap-and-trade program.

The program requires high-polluting industries to purchase carbon credits to offset going over state emission targets. The money generated goes into the state’s greenhouse gas reduction fund, which can be used for projects that reduce emissions, like increasing public transit and constructing walking trails. Steinberg wrote the legislation that created the fund in 2008, while serving on the state Senate.

The Sacramento region received less than it expected last year.

Evan Schmidt, a project leader for nonprofit research and social advocacy group Valley Vision, said the six-county region comprises 6.2 percent of California’s population, but only received 4.7 percent of available funds for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The auctions generated $1.8 billion in revenue through the 2015-16 fiscal year that just ended, and are projected to raise between $1.4 billion and $2.2 billion for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which began July 1.

“A mayor who wrote the law has an opportunity to put a stake in the ground on behalf of our community,” Steinberg contended.

Valenzuela Garcia doesn’t think it will be that simple.

“I mean, you can pass a bill that says Sacramento gets this and that, but that’s not the way it works,” she said, explaining that preference is given to competitive applications from engaged communities.

Because the application process is long and tedious, disadvantaged communities often need help, which sometimes leads to poor results. Some nonprofits will approach communities like Avondale Glen Elder with prewritten cap-and-trade applications that advance their agendas rather than address the community’s desires. For instance, the program probably can’t be used to build that grocery store that Jermaine Gill wants.

“It kind of feels like we have to take what’s given to us,” Pope-Harden said. “It’s not like anybody’s ever asked us, ’Hey, what do you want?’”

“There’s not always a great match between what neighborhoods want and need, and what the cap-and-trade program can provide,” Schmidt acknowledged.

For now, most of the work to redress Sacramento’s history of environmental injustice is small and piecemeal.

RT could use cap and trade to expand bus service, though it’s notorious for prioritizing light-rail expansions. Pope-Harden said her association supports the Sacramento Transportation Authority’s Measure B, which could yield roughly $1 billion to RT over 30 years, though she’s wary of how RT will spend the money.

But Pope-Harden remained hopeful that cap and trade might bring her neighborhood some of the financial help it’s rarely received. She has worked with Valenzuela Garcia on a cap-and-trade application to build a $5 million bike and walking trail at Morrison Creek between Power Inn and 65th.

“I think the beauty is that we have this opportunity,” Pope-Harden said.

Creating an opportunity was one of the goals of the UC Davis report, said lead researcher London, who timed its release ahead of grant application deadlines for cap-and-trade allocations.

As for the report’s overarching goal of inspiring regional action, Steinberg said he finds the argument compelling.

“It’s very consistent with what I campaigned on,” he told SN&R. “I’ve always believed that you campaign everywhere when you run for office, and of course you’re responsive to everyone, but your intense attention must be paid to the neighborhoods that need help the most.”

These neighborhoods will need Steinberg to hold that promise even more now.

Two of the community groups that the UC Davis report envisioned leading the charge, Ubuntu Green and the Coalition on Regional Equity, have since fractured.