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COVID-19 May Have A More Serious Impact On Formerly Redlined Communities


When people talk about structural racism, they often point to redlining. That was a practice the banks used for decades to avoid lending money to the residents of Black and immigrant neighborhoods. Though redlining was outlawed in 1968, a new nationwide study shows it continues to have an effect on the health of neighborhoods and the people who live there. NPR's Maria Godoy reports.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Torey Edmonds has lived in the same house in the east end of Churchill in a largely African American section of Richmond, Va., since the 1950s.

TOREY EDMONDS: I came - I actually came home from the hospital into this house.

GODOY: Edmonds says when she was a little girl, the neighborhood was a place of tidy homes with rose bushes and fruit trees and residents had ready access to local businesses.

EDMONDS: You know, we had a bowling alley, a movie theater, several grocery stores.

GODOY: Eventually, her parents tried to get a loan so they could get new windows for the house. They were rejected.

EDMONDS: And for a long time, the house was deteriorating. And that's what you see with a lot of the homes in the community. If the bank's not loaning, then things deteriorate.

GODOY: Researchers say this is a classic example of what happened to communities across the U.S. that were once subject to a discriminatory lending policy called redlining. The practice dates back to the 1930s when the federal government rated neighborhoods to help mortgage lenders decide which areas of cities were risky. Those with African Americans and immigrants were almost always considered to be the highest risk and they were marked in red on maps, hence redlining. Jason Richardson is research director with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. They recently released a study conducted with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Richmond. It analyzed historic redlining maps from communities across the U.S. and compared them with health outcomes in those areas today. What they found was a disturbing pattern.

JASON RICHARDSON: When banks and other actors are discouraged from lending in a community, you see a very kind of predictable arc of that community, right?

GODOY: A lack of investment meant houses fell into disrepair. That led to health hazards like mold and lead paint. Redlined neighborhoods were more likely to be near industrial sites, which meant more exposure to pollution. And they were less likely to have parks and grocery stores, which meant less access to healthy food and places to exercise. Torey Edmonds saw this play out in her Richmond neighborhood. By the 1970s, she says many homes had become rentals. Local stores disappeared.

EDMONDS: And then when they did come back, they were, like, those 40-ounce stores, those corner stores that sold a lot of cheap beer and wine, no real food.

GODOY: It wasn't just this neighborhood. It's also true in neighborhoods in Chicago, Milwaukee, Miami. Jason Richardson says that in the 142 urban areas they studied, people who live in neighborhoods today that were historically redlined have shorter lifespans on average. They also have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, kidney disease, asthma, stroke - many of which are risk factors for more severe cases of COVID-19.

RICHARDSON: When I stop and think about it, I'm kind of, you know, shocked by the lingering impact of these policies.

GODOY: But the study's conclusions come as no surprise to Torey Edmonds.

EDMONDS: Trust me. I know.

GODOY: Edmonds works for Virginia Commonwealth University promoting community health, and she knows that the average life expectancy in the mostly Black community where she lives is just 67 years. That's 22 years less than in a well-off white community a few miles away, a community that got the highest rating on those government redlining maps back in the 1930s.

EDMONDS: We talk about it. We research it. And my question is now that we know and we are very clear about what's happening, what do we do about it?

GODOY: Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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