By Liz Nass
Historical redlining of neighborhoods still poses health threats to present-day residents, such as increased risk of diabetes, hypertension and early death from heart disease, according to a recent study by the National Library of Medicine.
While redlining has been controversial for almost 100 years after neighborhood maps were drawn and redrawn to enforce racial segregation, the effects of such unethical housing processes have stuck around and damaged public health, the study said.
The term redlining stems from the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corp. maps that outlined neighborhoods in green, blue, yellow and red. The red-marked areas indicated a “hazardous” lending risk for real estate, encouraging banks not to mortgage houses or provide loans there.
While redlining practices are not legal anymore, the effects still linger in historically redlined areas that typically have a high concentration of minority residents.
Those practices result in marginalized neighborhoods with fewer opportunities for economic growth due to their history of underinvesting.
The study said that “mechanisms between historical redlining and health outcomes have not been well examined.”
Last summer, the Department of Civil Rights conducted a health summit on the impacts of redlining in Michigan.
John Johnson Jr., the department’s executive director, said the summit looked at “where people have been packed into certain neighborhoods and cities and were suffering from air pollution, which would cause asthma, which resulted in negative circumstances.”
Johnson said the organization’s goal is to better understand how historical policies affect marginalized populations in the state.
Nancy Haynes, the executive director of the nonprofit Fair Housing Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids, has been entrenched in the issue and finds the adverse effects of redlining to remain pervasive.
Haynes said those effects, dating from the maps drawn in the 1930s, are evident in the Grand Rapids and Muskegon areas, more specifically southeast Grand Rapids and Muskegon Heights.
In segregated neighborhoods in Detroit and Lansing, the red lines historically fell along the lines between predominantly minority neighborhoods and predominantly white neighborhoods, she said.
Haynes said that redlining impacts the location of today’s banks and where they provide mortgage loans.
“Denying those communities access to loans when loans were how families were beginning to build their family and the generational wealth that continues to today, those neighborhoods were disinvested in because of those maps,” Haynes said.
“The amenities weren’t put into those neighborhoods,” she said. “Those are the neighborhoods that continue today to not have access to capital.”
Haynes said she hears horror stories of predatory and high-risk loans perpetrated on residents of such communities, as many don’t have prior favorable relationships with banks and pull at straws to find financial backing to buy homes.
That causes them to incur a heavier economic burden, leaving them unable to afford other things necessary for health and wellness.
Jason Booza is an associate professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and an expert on public health and racial segregation.
“It affects public health,” Booza said of historical redlining. “You can think of all the things that are equally important to public health, like employment and education, anytime you end up with housing and business practices that are discriminatory.”
Booza said public health problems include individual physical health, but also root problems such as limited access to health care options in redlined neighborhoods, worsening individual health.
Other problems in redlined neighborhoods that add stress include too few options to buy healthy, affordable food and to exercise, Booza said.
Air pollution is also a large problem in redlined neighborhoods, with rail lines, major highways and manufacturing plants typically placed there, resulting in increased pollution and worsened respiratory health..
Booza said that a historically manufacturing-based redlined area has exacerbated health problems, “going back to the time of gasoline.” Trace amounts of pollutants in the soil make the environment unsuitable and more susceptible to damage health problems.
Darren Riley is the CEO and co-founder of Just Air, a startup company with offices in Metro Detroit, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
Riley started the company to address these issues of marginalized communities and the way residents interact with unsuitable, problematic environmental conditions.
Riley said Just Air has begun putting up air quality monitors in parts of historically marginalized areas of Grand Rapids, with 13, and Detroit, with 17.
The monitors send phone alerts when air quality worsens in one of those areas.
Riley said his family grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they felt the pressures of living in a marginalized community. Riley and his father developed asthma as adults.
Moving to Detroit, Riley said, he realized there were communities like those where he grew up that deal with the same problems and wanted to give families in those areas to feel safe allowing their children to play outside.
“In terms of my experience, when we talk about redlining, we’re looking at disparities in equality of environmental wellness,” Riley said.
Riley said he is working toward a point where the effects of redlining can be seen clearly by the air quality monitors, and his company will be able to tell the public “this pollution and this disparity is due to X, Y and Z.”
“By improving awareness education, you create resiliency within community members to give them tools to protect themselves, which I think is a form of agency and equality and equity that we must stand for and move forward with,” Riley said.
However, Booza said improvements in redlining’s negative effects need city-level change, but cities must use their own resources to address those problems.
Booza said big cities like Detroit could spend money for education and outreach, but many redlined areas cross geographic and municipal boundaries, making it hard to decide what jurisdiction would provide resources to deal with the impacts of redlining.
Riley said communities want to make sure they can thrive, and residents “don’t have to displace themselves to achieve a better life, but can stay where they are and grow their families and be part of their community in a healthy way.”
Liz Nass reports for Capital News Service