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In U.S. Cities, The Health Effects Of Past Housing Discrimination Are Plain To See

Explore maps of 142 cities to see the lingering harms of the racist lending policies known as redlining.

Researchers from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the University of Richmond and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee analyzed historic redlining maps from 142 urban areas across the U.S. — these maps, created in the 1930s, classified Black and immigrant communities as risky places to make home loans. They compared the maps to the current economic status and health outcomes in those neighborhoods today and found higher rates of poverty, shorter life spans and higher rates of chronic diseases including asthma, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and kidney disease.

These once-redlined neighborhoods are also more likely to have greater social vulnerability, meaning they're less able to withstand natural and human disasters because of their more limited resources.

The researchers published interactive versions of these city-by-city maps online for the public to explore their own communities. If your neighborhood was mapped back in the 1930s, these graphics allow you to see how it ranked back then and how it fares today.

What makes these findings especially urgent today, the researchers note, is that these neighborhoods have higher levels of many conditions that raise the risk of severe COVID-19.

"That's a startling revelation, that this global pandemic is going to have a more serious impact on communities that were redlined by official policy in the 1930s," says Jason Richardson, research director for the NCRC and a co-author of the study.

Redlining: Federally sanctioned discrimination

The redlining maps originated in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when the federal government set out to evaluate the riskiness of mortgages in major metropolitan areas of the country. The maps, created by the federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation, color-coded neighborhoods by credit worthiness. Areas with African-Americans and immigrants were almost always considered the highest risk, and they were marked in red on maps... hence, "redlining."

That practice and other discriminatory housing policies of the time helped concentrate poverty in communities of color for generations.

"When banks and other actors are discouraged from lending in the community, you see a very kind of predictable arc of that community," Richardson says. "When I stop and think about it, I'm kind of shocked by the lingering impact of these policies."

Redlining made it difficult, if not impossible, to buy or refinance. A lack of investment meant houses fell into disrepair. That led to health hazards like mold and lead paint. Industrial sites were more likely to be located near redlined neighborhoods, which meant more exposure to pollution.

As areas declined, retailers left, including grocery stores, which meant less access to healthy food. These neighborhoods also had less access to parks and other green spaces, meaning fewer places to exercise. All of those factors combined to create an environment conducive to poorer health outcomes, the researchers say.