In Conversation with Daphany Sanchez
Daphany Rose Sanchez is a longtime collaborator and now a Senior Fellow at Pratt Center, focusing on energy, sustainability and community engagement. She has played an integral role in formulating our NYCHA resident engagement process and helping shape the workshop curriculum. We recently spoke with Daphany about what led her into the world of energy and how her company is working to transform the sector. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
Pratt Center: Tell us about your path into the world of energy and sustainability.
I’m a native New Yorker, just like my father, grandmother, and great grandmother. My family for generations lived in Williamsburg so the stories I heard were of things that happened at different intersections and blocks and buildings in Brooklyn. Even though I'm ethnically Costa Rican and Puerto Rican, I've never even been to Puerto Rico, and my father's never been to Puerto Rico. My cultural ties are very much to New York land.
My first time grappling with the built environment was in the third grade. I was late to school once and my teacher said, "It doesn't matter. You're gonna end up dropping out anyway." I wondered why she said that, and her response was basically, "You know, you come from Cooper Houses." And I thought, "What the hell? What does the fact that I live in public housing have to do with who I am and what I do?"
In undergrad I studied sustainable urban environments with a concentration in construction management and civil engineering. I was eager to explore why NYCHA buildings weren’t operated or maintained properly and why family members living in Section 8 buildings were constantly without heat and hot water. I also did some work for Council Member Julissa Ferreras, helping constituents get their issues addressed, and I quickly realized that a lot of the problems were structural and determined at the policy level.
In 2011, my parents utilized HPD’s first time home ownership program and became the first people in their families to buy a home in Staten Island. I was really happy for them, but less than a year later, Hurricane Sandy happened. We were in the house, and I was working on my final thesis paper for undergrad, and I started hearing the sound of water running. And I was thinking, someone left the water running and now we’re going to have a huge bill. But my mom came into the room and said that’s floodwater. Get up! We opened the curtains in my room and it was just a wall of brown water, like something you see in a movie. As she pulled me out of the room, I grabbed my dog just before the window broke and water started gushing in.
My dad is diabetic and my mom is epileptic and I was having panic attacks. We got up to the roof space and the second floor and were rescued eight hours later by boat. It took a little while to get myself together after that. I didn’t want to take the train because it went under the river, I didn’t want to see the ocean, I didn’t want to cross the bridge. After I got over that fear of water, I went back to my engineering professors and they offered to help with structural analysis of our house. I was working at Make the Road at the time, so we helped my parents and other Sandy victims who didn’t have the means to pay for an engineer to assess their homes. In the process, I found myself doing translation from English to Spanish, but also translating the technical terminology into plain language. I had been struggling in engineering school, but this was an aspect of engineering I could do—bringing together the social and technical.
I had known that the public housing my parents were raised in was in a redlined neighborhood, because Puerto Ricans were considered detrimental to the community so they couldn’t get funding to buy a home. But what I learned after Sandy was that the Staten Island community where my parents purchased their home—the only place they could afford—was also a redlined community. It was scary to see how racist policies from decades ago still influenced where my parents could and couldn’t live.
After Sandy, they had to move back to Brooklyn because their house was completely demolished (they actually didn’t get it back until 2019), but they were paying their mortgage, plus rent, that whole time. I get very annoyed when people say we need to develop climate action solutions for the future. That’s offensive because climate disasters are impacting peoples’ lives today, and have been for decades. That’s how both of those stories merged into the work that I do.
After working with Council Member Ferreras’ office and Make the Road, I spent some time at DEP, Solar One, and eventually ICF. In these government and corporate settings, I was often the darkest person on the team (and I’m a pretty light Puerto Rican person). Not only that, I was often the only woman and only New Yorker. More and more, I was asking myself, how are we designing programs for New Yorkers without people who understand the actual obstacles and barriers? So I got fed up and I created my company.
With Kinteic Communities, I've had the creative flexibility to really dive into energy and housing. It’s also been hard because I work in the same industry and spend all my time interacting with folks not from my community. Then at the end of the day I come back into my building where I’ve been without a kitchen for three months and neighbor’s complaining about her broken door. This is my reality, so it’s always very funny to hear people in meetings talking about what they think is good for LMI communities, and then, when I make a suggestion, being told, "You don’t understand, because we’ve been working in this space for 30 plus years."
This gets into more systemic issues in the industry where it’s commonly assumed that low income people can only do outreach work and entry level lead generation, not program design and implementation, because the technical and policy side is too complicated for them.
Pratt Center: Can you talk about Kinetic Communities, your mission and purpose and what gets you out of bed every morning.
Daphany: The work that we do is really simplifying energy efficiency for diverse New York communities. We have a 2-market customer—our paying customer and the customer we like to work with.
The paying customers are utility and government clients that have these ambitious goals—they want to ramp up solar, heat pumps, energy efficiency everywhere, so they pay us to think about what opportunities exist in the built environment, specifically housing (I don’t work in commercial, industrial). If they want to target multifamily housing, we ask them when multifamily housing is looking at improvements? Who are the contractors that they engage? Where's that financing coming from? We use these questions to help them see that there are existing ecosystems that building owners and decision-makers, homeowners and renters are already part of that energy efficiency can be integrated into.
This is important because the market treats everything as an add-on. If you want solar, you need a solar-approved contractor. If you want insulation, you need a contractor that insulates. This creates an additional burden for low income homeowners because now they have duplicative applications. If they’re getting a mortgage or refinancing their home, they have to put in a refinancing application, and then they have to go to this arbitrary agency or utility and put in a secondary application. They have to do construction management as well—getting a contractor that’s approved by both the utility and the lender. And then there’s also the financial management and the financial literacy piece.
Our ultimate goal is to have all of this streamlined so that a first time homeowner, like my parents, when they’re applying for the HPD program—their mortgage is already loaded with solar, heat pumps, and removal of the old furnace. The contractor should be a local contractor that is already approved and properly trained to install those systems, and the incentives should be plugged into the mortgage, so that the overall mortgage goes down. It should be a one stop shop with a minimal amount of paperwork, coordination and construction management for the homeowner.
And the same goes for the multifamily sector. When a building is going up to refinance, there should be a streamlined and painless process for the building to have common area improvements as well as in-unit work. Section 8 customers doing their annual certification should learn about weatherization and opportunities to subscribe to community solar projects.
That’s what we envision the perfect world to be. Where we’re at is...still asking for applications to be in different languages. We’ve been asking for the past 12 years. A lot of these issues stem from the siloed nature of the energy industry. Energy work is construction work but the sector won’t stop using fancy marketing terminology and accept that they are general construction. You could eliminate barriers and allow, for example, local plumbers, electricians and home renovation contractors to participate in these programs. A lot of savings are being lost (therm savings, and kilowatt savings) because the programs are so siloed.
Our second market, the fun part, is working with the actual tenants, building owners and decision makers. It’s very similar to social work where we have 50 or 100 cases, and all the cases are in different buildings and different homes. We sit down with them and establish personal relationships. We train all of our staff in engineering, finance and underwriting, and construction and project management, because all of those little pieces influence the chances of the project being implemented, and help establish the trust bond that my team is building with these clients.
Pratt Center: Can you share an example of success you’ve had improving these burdensome programs?
One example, and it’s still in progress, in the multifamily space: There are two programs that have been siloed for a very long time. The HPD Green Housing Preservation program is open to buildings with five or more units interested in doing energy efficiency and general capital improvement. There’s an application process, you have to hire an energy auditor and a physical needs assessment auditor and then a scope of work is created with a potential budget, a regulatory agreement is created to ensure that the building stays affordable, and then the work is executed.
The other program is Con Edison’s multifamily energy efficiency program, which again serves buildings with five units or more. If a building is interested in doing energy efficiency work, they have to fill out an application, select an approved vendor, get a pre-site visit, be approved and, once the work is done, get a post site visit, and then finally get the funding—all within a year. With HPD, there are two closing months, June and December, but the program crosses over calendar years, whereas Con Edison’s does not.
A third program is NYSERDA’s MPP program (multifamily performance program) for five units or above. In order to apply, you have to have a NYSERDA approved vendor, you have to pay for an energy audit using NYSERDA’s specific tool, then it has to get approved by NYSERDA, you have to get a construction monitor, the work is done, and then the payment is released post-construction. This program can cross over calendar years as well.
In a perfect world, a building would submit one application that integrates all these processes. We’re not there yet. What we have done is helped create a communications channel between NYSERDA, ConEd, and HPD, which allowed us to host a cross training seminar so that the HPD-approved vendors could also be approved by NYSERDA and Con Edison. This is admittedly a short term victory. These barriers still exist.
What has started happening is that NYSERDA and HPD are now having monthly meetings to look at the spreadsheet that each of their auditors is using independently of each other, to see if they can just have one spreadsheet that can be submitted to both agencies so that the building owner is not paying for both the HPD and NYSERDA audits (Never mind that the audits say the same damn thing!). Once this new spreadsheet is finalized, they'll pilot it with a couple firms to test how it gets processed through both agencies. It's a step in the right direction, but it's been five years of working for this basic interagency coordination and data sharing.
Pratt Center: If you could set the agenda for the next mayor of New York City, what would be at the top of the list?
I say housing investment, and truly affordable housing. Also, not just rental housing—cooperative ownership and first time homeownership opportunities—supporting Black and Brown folks in reclaiming the wealth that’s been stolen from them. And within those housing policies, ensuring that sustainability is centered, that there are workforce opportunities, opportunities for co-ops, and nonprofits, and the Black and Brown communities doing this work. Yes, it might take longer, because they have to build capacity, but that's okay because a lot of these larger non-New York firms also have to build capacity. They take just as long if not longer because they don't understand the New York ecosystem. Invest in people, invest in organizations, and be realistic in communicating your goals and expectations with communities.