On the bulletin board in Gloria Ortiz-Fisher’s office hangs a letter from a single mother of three children that serves as a reminder of the challenges that those living in poverty face.
“The updates and remodeling that have been made to our building are more than a hard working mother could ever ask for,” the woman wrote in the letter. “Now that my unit is more energy efficient I can for the first time in my adult life afford rent and utilities on my own.”
The letter is an inspiration — one of empowerment where a mother no longer needs to rely on her parents to help her every month to pay her bills, Ortiz-Fisher said.
It also serves as a reminder of the importance of her work as the executive director of Westside Housing Organization, a 48-year-old community development corporation that creates affordable housing on Kansas City’s West Side, Midtown and Historic Northeast communities.
The organization helps build or rehab homes as well as do minor repairs, up to $10,000, including roofing, painting, and replacing or recaulking windows. Westside Housing is also remodeling a building east of downtown and adding solar panels on the roof to provide the energy for apartments. The goal is to have tenants’ energy to be included in the rent.
It’s families like the mother who wrote the letter who will be the first to be affected and the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change, Ortiz-Fisher said.
While everyone will be impacted, it will not be equally felt, an EPA report release last fall found. Racial and ethnic minority communities face the most harm from climate change, the report said. Those communities are the least likely to be able to prepare for and recover from threats such as heat waves, poor air quality and flooding.
Who’s harmed most by climate change?
Rachel Jefferson, executive director of Groundwork Northeast Revitalization Group in Kansas City, Kansas, said frontline communities, as well as fenceline neighborhoods that are adjacent to companies and affected by their noise, chemical emissions and traffic, experience the largest burden of environmental inequity.
Those communities have gotten “the short end of the stick” due to a legacy of racism and historically discriminatory practices and policies, she said. That’s the same for environmental conditions as well.
“I think that none us have a complete handle on all of the impacts, but we know it’s pretty easy to say that just like anything else that there’s probably going to be a certain population of people that are usually BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous and people of color) who are more affected because they don’t have the income or the wealth to be able to protect themselves and the political will is not with the people,” Jefferson said. “It’s with companies and corporations.”
Ben Carpenter, who was recently hired as Groundwork NRG’s Climate Safe Neighborhoods coordinator, said climate vulnerability is more than just hotter days or more rain events. He said housing affordability and houselessness are climate vulnerability issues.
“If you can turn on the air conditioning, you can kind of separate yourself from that extreme heat event,” he said. “But if you don’t have a home or you don’t have a house that’s been very well taken care of by a landlord, that becomes a more dire thing.”
Affordable housing helps bring equity
Ortiz-Fisher sees Westside Housing, through its affordable housing programs, as being in the position to help bring equity when addressing the effects of climate change.
“We like to say our tagline is: ‘Westside Housing works at the intersection of housing, health, energy and equity,” she said.
Ortiz-Fisher, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Park College and a master’s in business administration from Keller Graduate School, has worked in finance for more than 30 years, including as Jackson County’s director of finance and purchasing from 2003 to 2007.
It was while at Jackson County that environmental sustainability became part her everyday personal and work life. Katheryn Shields was executive director at the time and she took her directors on a week long living sustainably program at Shawdowcliff, a nonprofit mountain lodge and retreat center on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
While there, they learned from Bob Mann, founder of Bridging the Gap Inc., about local food — how it’s sourced and cooked, as well as recycling and energy footprints.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I acknowledge the change that took place in both my personal life and then how I thought about my footprint in the world with climate action.”
While she with the county, Ortiz-Fisher was asked by a friend to help Westside Housing because their finance chair had left and they needed someone to fill the opening on the board. She chuckled as she said she now warns people to be careful when they volunteer to get involved.
Originally she thought she was going to take on a little community committee meeting with a board meeting every other month. But her path went from chair of the finance committee to chairman of the board and then to executive director, which she never dreamed of being.
“So it’s been 20 years of fun and I love what I do,” she said. “I’m really fortunate to do something every day that I love.”
The Westside community also has special meaning because it’s where her family is from.
Commitment to sustainability
One of the first honors Ortiz-Fisher received when she became executive director was the designation of Westside Housing as a NeighborWorks Green Organization. The designation recognized Westside Housing for its commitment to sustainability.
That commitment continues today. When Westside Organization’s construction manager looks at a home, he considers what opportunities the organization can provide to save energy like whether a new roof would help create a tighter building envelop, whether the windows need caulking or even if changing all lighting to LED is warranted.
The way Ortiz-Fisher sees it, if she can save a family $20 or $30 on their monthly heating and cooling bill, that’s money that can go to other expenses or discretionary income.
That commitment can also be seen in Westside Housing’s current project — the remodeling of a building at 1718 E. 8th Street, east of downtown Kansas City. Once completed, the building will have solar panels on the roof with the hope that they would provide the energy for the apartments.
“What we see is that there is a climate resiliency factor in solar panels in the fact that if we have solar panels on the roof, the chance of that roof lasting longer and keeping us insulated is high,” she said.
It’s also a way to address an inequity of climate change because most working-class families can’t usually afford such an expense that would over time save them money.
They are also less likely to be able to afford to fix foundation problems caused when Kansas City’s clay soils contract during drought conditions, repair roofs that leak during heavy rains leading to poor air quality inside due to mold, or replace older air conditioners overtaxed by extreme heat stretching on for days, if not weeks.
“When we get to those 90 degree temperatures, or God bless us the 100 degree temperatures, and we stay there for sustained eight days or 10 days, those wreak havoc on our cooling systems,” she said. “They just are not made to run that hard that many days.”
Ortiz-Fisher said she sees herself as a conduit for what affordable house could be in Kansas City.
“If I can make the world better with affordable housing, then what a legacy that is,” she said.