Few doubt that where we live impacts who our friends are, the schools our children attend and the jobs we hold. What’s more, our ZIP code determines a lot more than just those things, too. It affects our likelihood of breathing contaminated air, living with childhood asthma and even our life expectancy.
What fewer of us realize, though, is that these factors are often a legacy of government-sponsored housing segregation that was outlawed decades ago but remains entrenched in nearly every city’s design — and has contributed to a foundation of environmental injustice being reckoned with now in communities such as Fifth Ward, where the first cancer cluster has been confirmed in the city of Houston.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government was charged with giving the housing industry, and in turn, American cities, neighborhoods and families, an economic jolt. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which not only bailed homeowners out of loans they couldn’t afford but set forth guidelines for determining which loans it would back in which neighborhoods. It created maps for more than 230 American cities, including Houston, that graded neighborhoods from “A, Best” to “D, Hazardous” to visually represent the security of loans in various neighborhoods and drew red lines around Grade D neighborhoods, where it would not guarantee loans — what we now call “redlining.”
The guidelines were based on housing age, neighborhood land use, and most infamously, race and ethnicity. The practice blocked access to credit in neighborhoods where people of color lived.
In combination with other forms of discrimination, such as deed restrictions that excluded people from neighborhoods based on race and various private lending practices, redlining helped create the conditions for white flight to suburbs and a lack of investment in neighborhoods where people of color lived.
In addition to starving neighborhoods of important services and access to credit, systematic segregation depressed land values, making it easy for poorly regulated polluting industries to set up shop or continue to expand in neighborhoods such as Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens.
A look back at those maps in several Texas cities shows that white neighborhoods were rarely concentrated near industry, while communities of color repeatedly bore the burden of living near heavy polluters such as railroads, stockyards, oil mills and refineries. That’s a pattern that has not only outlasted the end of redlining but intensified since.
Although redlining was outlawed through the Fair Housing Act of 1968 with the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the legacy of separate and unequal communities continues.
A 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color, and especially people in poverty, are disproportionately exposed to car fumes, construction dust, ash, oil smoke and other air pollutants compared with white residents. The study also found that people of color are exposed to more pollution than they cause.
It’s no wonder that many middle- and high-income people of color moved to suburbs once they had the option. Those who stayed often depended on strong networks of family and friends to make it day to day. Not only did many not want to leave their historic communities, they could not afford a move.
Both private and governmental entities are responsible for the adverse health impacts of concentrating people of color near heavy industry and failing to ensure the quality of life for residents equally.
In early December, residents of the historic Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods received confirmation of what they had suspected for decades: their family members and neighbors have been diagnosed with or have died of cancer at a much higher rate than residents of other Houston communities. The Texas Department of State Health Services conducted an assessment that determined a cancer cluster exists in the northeast Houston area.
Residents believe the cluster is linked to decades of racist housing policy and business practices that concentrated heavy industry and pollutants in communities of color. Creosote, a known carcinogen, was used for more than 80 years in a nearby railroad yard, now owned by Union Pacific. Over time, the chemicals sank into the soil, contaminated groundwater and spread beneath some 110 homes in the area.
Texas Housers and several other community partners have been working with community residents to hold Union Pacific accountable for contaminating the neighborhoods and demand that the multibillion-dollar company clean up its mess and repay residents for generations of illness and suffering.
Going forward, that means industry leaders should meet with community members in person in impacted areas to begin the long process toward appropriate compensation and healing. Residents who have signed earlier settlements with strings attached should be released from those agreements and be free to pursue further legal action. In our community work, we have seen frequent polluters offer impacted communities one-time, low-ball settlements that don’t come close to accounting for the financial and emotional harm of their business.
As for the public sector, local, state and federal agencies should collaborate with one another and with community members to examine the health impacts of redlining and industrial pollution by conducting research, sharing the results of that research with community members and increasing the availability of screening services for pollution-related conditions.
Too many in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, and in countless other Texas communities of color, have suffered illness and loss at the hands of policymakers and industry. Residents are demanding acknowledgment of this offense and a path toward healing and justice.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
Middleton is Southeast Texas co-director at Texas Housers, a nonprofit fair and affordable housing advocacy organization.
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