Communities subjected to discriminatory lending and mortgage practices decades ago now have higher rates of asthma, according to new research out Wednesday. These predominately low-income communities and communities of color also suffer from increased exposure to pollutants.
Redlining — the practice of denying loans or insurance to certain groups or neighborhoods over concerns that they might be at higher risk of default — has been banned for more than half a century. But the discriminatory practice played a major role in shaping modern neighborhoods, with a disproportionate impact on low-income people of color. And it may also be having a profound affect on contemporary health issues.
An analysis of eight California cities indicates that redlining left vulnerable groups at disproportionate risk of asthma and air pollution exposure. The new research from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) shows that residents in historically redlined communities are more than twice as likely as residents in other communities to make emergency room trips due to asthma.
Those same neighborhoods also have significantly higher levels of diesel particulate matter in their air, a component of diesel exhaust, which causes lung cancer and has been linked to bladder cancer. Decreased mental function and heart damage are also associated with the carcinogen, which effects ecology as well as people — diesel exhaust has been found to degrade the environment needed for honeybees.
“Redlining maps that were drawn 80 years ago, partially on the basis of race, are still predictive of not only who lives in a neighborhood, but also what kind of health problems they are experiencing,” Anthony Nardone, a Berkeley-UCSF medical student who led the analysis project, said in a statement.
The researchers traced the modern health trends back to redlining practices from decades ago. A direct culprit is the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), formed in 1933, which for years color-coded the risks associated with different neighborhoods across the country. Redlining itself comes from the red color assigned to grade D areas, or those deemed to be at the highest risk of default, while green was assigned to grade A neighborhoods.
Racial demographics played a significant role in these assignments, with “foreign-born” status among the factors taken into account. Income was another major factor; the restrictions ultimately allowed for the government to deny home loans to large swathes of people, with 239 cities overall impacted.
As the years passed and redlining became illegal, the authors of the study note that some cities have shifted demographically, with gentrification playing a role in slightly altering neighborhoods. But black and Latinx people disproportionately still live in the red zones — with serious health implications.
The researchers used historic redlining maps from San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego for the analysis. They compared the HOLC ratings to both current air quality and health outcome data results for each city, ultimately finding that neighborhoods once coded as red visited emergency rooms 2.4 times more often than those once coded as green. Diesel particulate matter measurements were also nearly twice as high in the formerly red neighborhoods.
While diesel particulate matter has been linked to asthma, the researchers said other factors cannot be ruled out in assessing asthma rates, with poverty and crime rates among the variables that need to be accounted for. Regardless, the authors said that the connection between redlining and the current health and pollution trends is a strong one.
“The persistence of the legacy of redlining, in terms of its current effect on asthma healthcare utilization, was striking,” said John Balmes, director of the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, in a statement.
The full report is not published yet, but Nardone told ThinkProgress the researchers plan to submit to a journal by the end of June.
The California study is only the latest to show the lingering effects of redlining. A 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the practice has left historically redlined communities worse off economically today. Moreover, contemporary research has shown that people of color are often steered by real estate agents towards more polluted neighborhoods, even though redlining is banned.
And the disproportionate impact of pollution and other environmental issues on low-income communities and people of color has long been documented. A March study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that black and Latinx Americans often suffer from “pollution inequality” as they breathe air largely contaminated by their white counterparts, who typically generate more of the pollution. Separate findings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have shown that air pollution overwhelmingly impacts people of color more than white people.
Many proponents of bold climate action, like the congressional Green New Deal resolution, are pushing for environmental justice to be a key component of any major proposal — putting the needs of frontline communities, including those impacted by pollution and poor air quality, at the forefront. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has overseen the mass rollback of environmental protections meant to safeguard human health; that includes efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, the U.S. federal law controlling pollution at a national level.