The effects of housing discrimination on health can reverberate for decades

Getty Images

Last year, reporters at the Center for Investigative Reporting combed through 31 million mortgage lending records in dozens of U.S. metropolitan areas. Their reporting, which nearly landed them a Pulitzer Prize, revealed that racial discrimination is alive and well in mortgage lending today.

While Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson may not have read this report, he certainly knows that housing discrimination is not just a relic of the past. So why would he propose to throw away a key tool we need to fight against it?

The Center for Investigative reporting analysis, For People of Color, Banks are Shutting the Door to Homeownership, did make it across our desks. Even though we work in public health, not at HUD, we know that housing discrimination is critically important to our field. That’s because housing discrimination can have severe and lasting consequences for Americans’ health.

Where a child lives — including the quality and affordability of her family’s housing, and whether her family owns their home — shapes how healthy that child will be, what kind of schools she can attend, even how long she’ll live.

And the effects of housing discrimination on health can reverberate for decades. Even though redlining (the policy of discouraging economic investment, typically in highly-segregated black and brown neighborhoods) formally ended over 50 years ago, researchers have found that life expectancy is still lower in areas that were previously redlined.

The separation of groups into separate and unequal neighborhoods is not the only way that housing impacts health. The quality of the housing stock in high-poverty neighborhoods is lower than in low-poverty neighborhoods, exposing children to health risks such as lead and vermin infestation. And children in high-poverty neighborhoods find fewer options to keep them healthy, like access to affordable, nutritious foods, or safe spaces for play and recreation.

HUD’s new proposal, which is open for public comment starting on Monday, would weaken an Obama-era rule that is critical for combatting modern forms of discrimination. At stake is a standard under the Fair Housing Act called “disparate impact.” Protection from disparate impact makes it illegal for banks, landlords, and developers, among others, to implement policies that have discriminatory consequences — even if these policies can’t be proven to have been intentionally meant to discriminate.

Like the Center for Investigative Reporting story, study after study shows that people of color and other stigmatized groups receive unfair treatment in the housing market. For example, lenders turn down African American applicants for home mortgage products more often than they turn down whites, even when both applicants have similar credit and financial backgrounds. This can happen without the lender knowing the applicants’ race, particularly when other factors—such as an “undesirable” zip code—are part of the lending equation.

Housing discrimination today unfolds in the context of decades of state-sanctioned housing discrimination, redlining, and investment in “whites-only” enclaves. Government and private sector policies and practices have deprived housing opportunities for many Americans.

As a result, most American metropolitan areas remain moderately to highly segregated. And families of color, regardless of their economic means, are much more likely than white families to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. For example, Patrick Sharkey, chair of the NYU Sociology Department, found that even today black families making $100,000 live in neighborhoods comparable to those of white families earning $30,000.

HUD’s disparate impact standard has been widely effective in redressing discriminatory practices in industries like home lending and property insurance, making housing more available to all. But some of these industries would be exempted from scrutiny under the proposed rule, threatening to increase the kinds of predatory home mortgage practices that led to a historic loss of black and brown wealth in the wake of the 2008 recession.

America can’t afford to impede the health — or wealth — of any of its residents. It’s time to harness all the tools at our disposal to ensure that every family has the opportunity to pursue quality housing and good health in the neighborhood of their choice.

Brian Smedley is the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity. Rachel A. Davis is the executive director at Prevention Institute. Avery Smedley is an intern at the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

Tags Ben Carson

More Civil Rights News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video