The Problematic History of Housing Policy: Part two of our housing & the environment series

By Caitlyn Baylor, RAHFH Homeowner Services & Grants Director

In part one of our series on housing and the environment, we looked ahead at disparities that are just beginning to unfold in access to energy efficient housing. In part two, we look backward to gain insight on how past housing policy has impacted who is suffering the most under the climate crisis today.

In a recent episode of the podcast On Being, atmospheric scientist Katherine Hayhoe insightfully said that climate change is not merely impacting the environment – it is amplifying the most serious humanitarian crises we have on our planet. We are not only talking about a future where the ice caps melt to the detriment of polar bear habitat; we’re talking about a future where cities like Rockford will have three “100 year” heat waves each summer.

And if you think about it, who will this impact the most?

Residents in different neighborhoods within the same city do not experience summer heat evenly. Low-income neighborhoods are hotter than wealthier neighborhoods. And when you look at where these hotter neighborhoods are, they are neighborhoods that were historically redlined.

The racist policies of the mid-20th century that reinforced residential segregation and diverted investment away from Black neighborhoods continue to contribute to enormous disparities in many forms today. One of these disparities is in the “urban heat environment.” Historically redlined neighborhoods across the country are now 5 to 12 degrees hotter in summer than wealthier and whiter parts of the same cities.

Why? Because redlining contributed to development in these neighborhoods that meant fewer trees, fewer parks, tighter buildings, more concrete, and closer proximity to highways and industrial complexes. These environments absorb and radiate heat, and this has led to higher summer temperatures in these neighborhoods. The trees and vegetation more common in wealthier neighborhoods, in contrast, has led to cooler temperatures.  

Heat is the deadliest weather disaster in the United States, and with global warming intensifying, cities will have to confront that one of the many legacies of racist housing policy is that people of color remain more vulnerable to dangerous heat where they live.

We are starting to see that climate change is compounding existing inequalities in a multitude of ways. People who already suffered from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure— all conditions that are exacerbated by heat— are now living in hotter neighborhoods while lacking air conditioning. People who already had to walk long distances for food due to a lack of nearby stores and transportation are now doing so in higher temperatures. These are just two of many examples to illustrate the relationship that is forming between the climate crisis and the housing crisis.

Connecting these dots, Patrick Canagasingham, chief operating officer of Habitat for Humanity International, recently urged delegates at the UN climate change conference to remember that “the housing and climate crises are interconnected. They cannot be solved in isolation but rather through holistic efforts that prioritize the needs of families most vulnerable to climate change.”

The intersection of these crises is a crossroad in our work. We can no longer hope to create a world where everyone has a decent place to live without also addressing the changing climate in which all housing is situated.

The facts and statistics in this post are drawn from The New York Times’ 2020 article “How Decades of Racist housing policy left Neighborhoods Sweltering” by Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich.

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