Repairing Us: Redlining, Hazards and the East Coast

Redlining is the term coined to refer to a practice of rating neighborhoods by desirability for purposes of federally backed mortgages. The practice began in the 1930’s when the Federal Housing Authority and Home Owners’ Loan was created to ensure loans. Neighborhoods were rated “A” through “D” with those in which there was a heavy presence of immigrants or African Americans receiving the lowest ratings. The color coded system signaled to lenders that predominately white neighborhoods, or “blue” areas were safe investments whereas “red” and predominately African-American or immigrant areas where not safe investments. The color coding and accompany pockets of poverty were called “redlined” neighborhoods. The practice was officially outlawed with the passing of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But as many African American and Latino individuals can tell you, it continues to be a de facto practice and continues to put their communities at risk.

In this last part of our work examining the losses from COVID-19 and the particular vulnerabilities of communities of color, we took a few steps back, or zoomed out to look at redlined areas along the East Coast. What we found was divestment in the form of lack of access to or general availability of healthcare, education, commerce and other public benefits and goods. Additionally, hard infrastructure was below grade or failing.

Sarah Blesener / Reveal via AP

We took a look at Providence, Rhode Island in addition to Boston, Massachusetts and then revisited Baltimore to compare to its non-redlined neighbor, Alexandria, Virginia. What we found generally was that neighborhoods that had been redlined were more at risk for flooding, meaning the area was a FEMA Flood Risk Rating of +6 or higher. They were more exposed to environmental hazards ranging from proximity to power plants to having a lead production factory in the center of the neighborhood in the Sandtown area of Baltimore. Given that all of these factors contribute to decreased overall resilience in communities, but create particular vulnerabilities to COVID-19, it follows that they have not fared well during the pandemic. Providence County has the highest death rate in the state at 1,934 so far. The Rhode Island Department of Health has breakdowns by race and published that Latino people account for 220 of those deaths and African-Americans 108, as of this writing. This represents disparate impact, but not to the extent of the disparity in Boston. In Boston, the total death count is 1,364. African-American deaths are 444 of those and Latino people are 178, according to the Boston Health Commission.

That there is a pretext between redlining and a variety of social ills is best illustrated by comparison. Baltimore, as you may recall from our special take on that city’s challenges, is 44% African-American, heavily redlined and has one of the country’s highest rates of poverty at 27%. According to the U.S. Census, its median income is just $29,943. Less than an hour’s drive away is another city that makes up the “DMV” or the Washington, DC-Baltimore Metropolitan area-Alexandria, Virginia.

Alexandria is not, and was never heavily redlined. Looking at our map you can see the light green color indicating a “best” or “most desirable” risk assessment for lenders. This is not because it is racially homogenous. The city is 21% African-American, Latinos are 17%, and Asian-Americans makeup 6% of the population. While areas closest to the river are at flood risk, due to investment and mitigation efforts, large parts of the area are FEMA Flood Risk Index +3 or less. There are few environmental hazards, excepting a power plant and cement facility that is currently being remediated. It’s median income is more than $100,000. Only 20 African-Americans in Alexandria have died of COVID-19 versus 582 in Baltimore City.

So what is to be done? First acknowledge that banks still redline. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that banks reject home mortgage applicants of color at many times the rate of white applicants in the largest 61 metropolitan areas. Next, advocate for enforcing the laws designed to prevent it. The American Bankers Association does not deny the trend, which shows African-Americans being turned down for loans at 2.7 times the rate of whites. The organization says there needs to be better enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, which is designed to specifically reverse the divestment associated with redlining. According to employees we interviewed at the Housing and Urban Development Agency and the Department of Justice, there is a backlog of Fair Housing Act and Fair Lending Act complaints to be addressed. Laws can only be tools of justice if they are enforced consistently and fairly.

This is the last early look at the intersections of race, poverty, justice and the pandemic. The entire series can be found on Medium and Undesigning Disasters. More of our maps and data is publicly posted and written as lecture starters on SocialExplorer.com. The final article and results of this work will be ready for academic publication in the Fall of 2021.

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Monica Sanders

Monica Sanders

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monicacsanders.com; Professor at Georgetown;Senior Fellow, Tulane Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy; Activist-Scholar