Asthma: The Surviving Symptom of Redlining in Low-Income Communities of Color

Julia Vanella is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.

The term redlining is “the practice of denying a creditworthy applicant a loan for housing in a certain neighborhood even though the applicant may otherwise be eligible for the loan.”  It is also a significant factor in the U.S.’s current neighborhood makeup. In 1935, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation marked neighborhoods regarded as “hazardous” with red ink on maps to denote which areas not to invest in and to separate the “hazardous” areas from the so-called “best” areas.  When redlining was outlawed in 1968, the general public believed that its elimination would help individuals and families marginalized by the original practice to buy a house and receive the same opportunities as their white counterparts. However, this was not the case because it was too late. The people and families affected by the practice could not recover and were unable to leave the redlined areas due to the decreased equity appreciation of the homes in redlined areas. This practice hindered affected families from selling their homes for higher prices, disabling them from affording homes in the “better” areas where wealthier white families lived. 

 The Impact of Redlining Today

The effects of redlining still exist today. Previously redlined areas are likely to be composed of lower-income and minority inhabitants, many of whom suffer from generational effects of the practice. Loans in “hazardous” neighborhoods were extremely expensive, creating a barrier for low-income minorities to purchase homes. This built the foundation for the United States’ continuous racial wealth gap, which Richard Rothstein outlines in his book, The Color of Law. Rothstein argues that the segregated neighborhoods that continue to exist today contribute to stationary inequality, as families are unable to migrate to other areas due to the substantial lack of opportunity in redlined neighborhoods. Since redlining allowed for loan officers to discriminate against minorities, these families were not granted the same opportunities as white families and were often unable to leave redlined areas. 

Once the federal government banned the practice of redlining, an underlying belief that people and families of color could now afford to move to better areas persisted across America. However, this expectation proved unrealistic as although these families now had the option to move, they could not afford the suburban homes that many white families were purchasing in the “better” areas and consequently, were not receiving the wealth that came through home ownership in these more affluent areas. Therefore, many families have historically lived in redlined areas for generations, leading to further systemic disparities, such as less access to transportation, inadequate health care and poorly-funded public schools. 

Health Effects From Redlining

Redlining created long-term health effects on the communities directly affected by the practice. Environmental racism plays a significant role in the health of minorities living in previously redlined neighborhoods. The areas that were once redlined and are now predominantly inhabited by people of color have experienced the worst effects of pollution and industry due to their proximity to fossil fuel plants and waste dumps. A recent study suggests that in redlined areas, the rate for asthma is about 2.4 times higher than in other areas.  The study further asserts that while redlining policies contributed to the marginalization of racism towards minorities, it also exposed them to certain physical environments that may have led to the development of asthma. 

Redlining of certain neighborhoods in the United States led to the divestment of those areas. Previously redlined areas are now near freeways, which exposes them to higher levels of exhaust and poorer air quality, other suggested leading factors for asthma.  Due to geographic differences, researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that people of color are considerably more likely to breathe polluted air than white people. Asthma rates are higher among people of color, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Between 2016 and 2018, 10.1 percent of non-Hispanic African Americans were affected versus 8.1 of white non-Hispanics. Black Non-Hispanics face a higher risk of dying from asthma-related causes than white non-Hispanics. 

Construction companies also tend to build affordable housing in previously redlined areas. Although policymakers typically view this type of housing as a solution to providing housing to those who need it, it also leads to other problems that remain unknown to residents. When affordable housing units are built near highways, residents face severe disadvantages and are negatively affected by the underlying health issues that may arise in affordable housing units. 

Looking Towards The Future

 The practice of redlining was intended to isolate and separate different neighborhoods on city maps by segregating them as “hazardous,” and the long-lasting effects have resulted in exactly that. People of color who reside in low-income communities have continued to experience systemic disparities by enduring the adverse health effects left behind by obsolete legislation. 

Currently, no policies exist to counteract the effects of redlining, but several policymakers have introduced plans to grant more opportunities to affected families to purchase homes outside of redlined areas. From the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, a few plans and proposals stand out as future possibilities for policies aimed at mitigating these long-term issues. Sen. Warren’s plan would provide financial assistance for first-time homebuyers who resided in previously redlined or other formerly legal segregated areas. Mayor Buttigieg proposed the Community Homestead Act, which would acquire abandoned homes in certain cities and permit families who once lived in redlined areas to purchase them. Sen. Harris’s proposal would invest $100 billion for down payments and closing costs for those who once lived in government-owned buildings or in previously redlined areas that are considered low- to moderate-income today. 

In 2020, environmental racism is as prevalent as ever. Hopefully, policymakers will bring the issue of asthma and its correlation to low-income housing to the forefront of the policy agenda and pass legislation that will protect vulnerable groups who face the highest risk of being affected by this health concern.

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