We Can’t Wait Until Coronavirus Is Over to Address Racial Disparities

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Covid-19 exposed stark inequalities: Rates of mortality and severe illness are far higher among Americans of color. Politicians, journalists and scholars have been attempting to explain these racial differences by pulling from a wide range of past studies and assumptions. Many of these early suggestions emphasize how Covid-19 is illuminating pre-existing inequality.

Yet, early reporting and existing studies suggest Covid-19 is not simply exposing past inequality. It is also creating it. Like previous crises, such as natural disasters, war, and economic recessions, our response to Covid-19 is exacerbating racial disparities. However, this is not inevitable. Addressing unequal distributions of Covid-19 testing, racial biases in health care, and policy responses to racial segregation now could mitigate how unjust this crisis turns out to be.

Comparing across regions in the U.S. and between countries, it has become abundantly clear that early detection and effective contact tracing are critical for both containing Covid-19 and curtailing its most severe symptoms. This requires widespread, accessible testing — something the United States has yet to implement anywhere. Yet, testing has been even more scarce in communities of color.

Early reporting by NPR has shown that Black Americans have been less likely to receive a Covid-19 test than White Americans even when showing the same symptoms. This has contributed to misdiagnosis and in some cases inaccurate medical advice. These patterns mirror previous research that has repeatedly shown doctors mis- and under-diagnosed Black people’s health conditions leading to further health complications and shorter life expectancy — an occurrence particularly pronounced for Black women whose knowledge about their own bodies is often dismissed, disregarded and misunderstood.

For Covid-19, the lack of testing and misdiagnoses has likely resulted in the virus spreading more rapidly across Black communities, and in individual cases escalating without the proper precautions and treatment. To fully empirically estimate the effect this lack of testing is having on the observed racial inequality, we need more data across all racial groups on who is getting access to proper testing and whether hospitalized Covid-19 patients are receiving improper advice or health care because of initial misdiagnoses. Not to mention, we also need more data from the tests themselves to see who is testing positive and how the virus is affecting various populations.

Beyond testing, initial studies on Covid-19 suggest severe symptoms and mortality are more likely when patients have underlying conditions such as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, asthma or cardiovascular disease. Black and Native Americans are more likely than their White counterparts to have these underlying and chronic conditions because of racial biases in health care, housing markets, employment sectors, educational institutions and the criminal justice system. Government officials and journalists have insinuated that Covid-19 hospitalizations and mortality inequities are a product of the racial gaps in these pre-existing conditions.

Although this is certainly part of the story, it is likely not all of it. The aforementioned lack of Covid-19 testing, lack of access to health care and the quality of health care received could be intensifying the effect underlying conditions have on patients of color with Covid-19. In other words, a White resident with underlying health conditions, who has access to early testing and whose doctors trust their account of their symptoms is more likely to avoid the most severe Covid-19 symptoms compared to a Black or Native American with identical underlying conditions and Covid-19 symptoms.

To fully unpack these various factors we need more data broken down by race about cases, treatments and outcomes. Yet, even without this data, it is clear it is not just pre-existing conditions driving the racial inequality. It is also access to and experiences within the health-care system that are creating the racial inequality.

In addition to underlying conditions, initial analyses by some scholars have explained this inequality as a product of existing occupational and residential segregation: Historical and contemporary labor policies and practices have concentrated workers of color into often below-living-wage employment sectors — many of the same sectors that are disproportionately experiencing heightened exposure to Covid-19 and offer inconsistent or limited sick leave policies. Yet, it goes beyond just class, as middle-class Black workers are disproportionately concentrated in government jobs like mail carriers or bus drivers compared to their White counterparts who are disproportionately employed by private companies.

Likewise, contemporary and historical (im)migration and housing policies have concentrated residents into certain neighborhoods, cities, counties and even regions of the country. This means, even in this time of social distancing, Americans are more likely to interact with people of their same race as they make essential trips to the local grocery store or receive packages on their front porch. Since Covid-19 is highly contagious, living in a community with more cases (for all the aforementioned reasons) means this contagion is likely to spread more quickly within racial groups, as we are witnessing in New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood and Louisiana’s Black communities. Just as so-called “Black-on-Black violence” is more a function of racial segregation and proximity than something cultural or biological as is often alleged, so might be Black-on-Black Covid-19 contraction.

Fully illuminating the role occupational and residential segregation are playing in the observed Covid-19 inequities will require significantly more data. Yet, even without this full picture, it is likely occupational and residential segregation combined with racialized practices within workplaces and across regions that are exacerbating the inequities.

Clearly, we need much more information before we can definitively say which mechanisms are contributing to the racial inequality in Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. However, using history as a guide and what we know from early reporting, it is clear racial inequities are being created in how we are choosing to respond to this crisis.

To curtail this inequity, we need transparency about who has access to testing, test results, hospitalizations and mortality rates. We also need more data on how employees, residents and patients are interpreting their possible risk and access to healthcare. And we need to use this data to better understand who is getting sick, and why.

Beyond data, we need action steps that explicitly centralize the need for equity in our multifaceted response to this crisis. The federal government must make tests more widely available in communities of color. Health-care workers need to challenge their own racialized biases and ensure patients’ own assessments of their health are being heard. Corporate employers need to think critically about how their policies might directly and indirectly contribute to racial inequality. Federal and local governments need to consider how they can creatively decrease racial inequality through new ways of implementing immediate and long-term responses.

We cannot wait until the crisis is over to examine or address the structural inequalities Covid-19 is exposing. If we do, then these inequalities will only worsen. Prioritizing equity in our responses now is the only way we can begin to create a more equitable tomorrow.

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Will Presidential Candidates’ Plans to Address Redlining Work?

Several issues have gone missing so far on the debate stage among the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, among them affordable housing and racial equity. This, despite the fact that living costs are going up while wages remain stagnant, and that the percentage of people—whites included—who believe that African Americans are getting fair housing opportunities, is at its lowest level in decades, according to Gallup.

So far, six presidential candidates have proposed policies that address both housing insecurity and historical racial discrimination in the housing market. Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders, along with South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg, and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have all submitted plans that specifically take a crack at addressing racial housing injustices. Some of them aim to reverse the damage done by redlining—the system in which government and financial market forces conspired to keep black people trapped in segregated and under-invested neighborhoods.

Some of those plans that target redlining propose offering down-payment assistance for certain first-time home-buyers in neighborhoods that were historically labeled as “hazardous” in the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) risk maps of the 1930s—the blueprints for redlining policies. Warren, Buttigieg, and Harris all offer this in the name of redressing and hopefully reversing redlining’s legacy, which is still keeping black families from building wealth today, according to numerous studies.

“A policy by any other name might be called reparations,” CityLab wrote earlier this year in reference to Warren’s plan.

That is indeed the idea, according to Mehrsa Baradaran, the University of California, Irvine law professor whose research serves as the basis for several of the presidential candidates’ redlining-aimed proposals.

Wrote Baradaran in her study “Jim Crow Credit”:

Most of the neighborhoods that were initially redlined in 1934 have been perpetually denied credit and thus remain pockets of poverty. Racial ghettos, once created, have had remarkable staying power. Across the country, these black ghettos are still the territories where the wealth and well-being gap are most drastically highlighted. These are the districts where poverty is still concentrated, schools are segregated, and properties continue to be devalued. By focusing a reparations program on geography as opposed to identity, policymakers can not only avoid the sacred cow of colorblindness, but they can link reparations with integration.

However, a new report from the Brookings Institution says that those policies likely won’t have the effect that the candidates think they will. Brookings fellow Andre Perry and research analyst David Harshbarger examined the current demographics of the residents who live in city neighborhoods that were redlined as “hazardous” in the HOLC maps and found that most of the people who live within those boundaries today are not African Americans, unlike when those zones were first drawn in the 1930s. Overall, there are more white and Latino people living in the formerly redlined neighborhoods today. Meaning, according to their analysis, that any policy based on the redlining maps would fail to comprehensively benefit black families—the demographic the plans seek to remunerate in the first place.

Of course, when looking closely at redlined neighborhoods at the city and regional level, there are still some that have a majority-African-American population today—Detroit, Birmingham, Cleveland, and Baltimore are a few examples. Chicago and Philadelphia have sizable black populations in their formerly redlined neighborhoods, but they still don’t match the white and Latino residential demographics in those zones.

Still, there is no region in which most of the formerly redlined neighborhoods have black populations comparable to when those red lines were first drawn. In the Northeast, the city with the highest percentage of black people still living in formerly redlined neighborhoods is Pittsburgh, where 36 percent of African Americans fit the bill.

However, formerly redlined neighborhoods do, in fact, still carry on the hallmarks of concentrated poverty and lower home values, according to the report.

“Clearly, these areas have suffered from a legacy of divestment, and deserve attention from policymakers,” the Brookings Institution researchers write. “But a strategy to close the racial wealth gap that focuses mainly on these now-diversified locations risks overlooking Black neighborhoods elsewhere.”

Many African Americans, particularly those of low-income, are now living in the suburbs of these cities, not the inner city, where the redlining most frequently occurred. Not only that, but recent federal housing policies, such as the replacement of public housing with mixed-income developments and the expansion of Section 8 housing vouchers, has dispersed black families across metropolitan regions while infusing more white residents into neighborhoods once almost exclusively inhabited by black residents.

Sociologist William Darity, director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, anticipated this problem back in January when he told CityLab:

By avoiding making it a program that’s directed specifically at the families that either were living in neighborhoods subject to redlining, or families that indirectly lost income as a consequence of the impact of redlining given the existence of segregated residential areas, the bill is not designed to provide resources specifically to those families that were victimized. It actually gives resources to current residents.

The criteria for receiving down-payment assistance varies among the candidates’ plans. Warren’s housing plan is centered around the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act bill she introduced to the Senate last year. It would create a new HUD fund to help people buy homes in formerly redlined areas. This program would provide cash assistance for down payments to first-time homebuyers. To qualify, a buyer must have lived in the area for at least four years, and their earnings must fall within 120 percent of the area median income.

Harris’s approach is similar. Her plan would give down-payment assistance to homebuyers who live in areas that were subject to redlining or legal racial segregation. Unlike Warren’s plan, though, under Harris’s program, buyers could use these HUD grants to purchase a home anywhere in the country. They don’t have to be first-time buyers, although the plans requires buyers to use the home as a principal residence. Only buyers who have lived in a formerly redlined community for at least 10 years would be eligible for Harris’s program. And her legislation is meant to work with other bills to make credit scores more inclusive.

Buttigieg’s program is even more geographically focused. His plan would tackle hyper-vacancy, a term that describes communities plagued by very high shares of vacant properties—cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. Buttigieg’s plan would give vacant properties to homesteaders who would take full ownership over the houses as long as they occupied them for a decade. The homes would come with an extremely low-cost mortgage, payable directly into a homeownership fund, which would be used for improvement and maintenance for distressed properties.

Under the Buttigieg plan, only residents who have lived in designated pilot areas for three years and earn less than the area median income, or have lived in an historically redlined or segregated neighborhood for three years, can qualify for the program. Again, it’s a plan for building general wealth, not just redistributing cash: Homeownership is key. However, it is still subject to the same criticism that people who currently live in historically redlined areas are not necessarily the victims of decades of discriminatory lending policies.

There are other problems to plans based on homeownership in redlined communities. Many of the African American or Latinx families who live in formerly redlined communities don’t fit the profile of a first-time homebuyer, for example. They may own their homes now, or they may have owned homes previously. These residents may have been victims of predatory lending schemes or the foreclosure crisis. While a down-payment program targeted to residents from specific geographic areas might be a way to help some households build wealth (as opposed to a simple cash transfer), it is a near-sighted approach to making whole the victims of redlining, critics say.

There’s also the question of whether providing financial assistance for black families to purchase houses in formerly redlined districts would reinforce or even lock in the segregation that already exists—after all, it’s wealthy, white suburbs that need the integration and have the proximity to economic opportunities that black families could benefit from.

Baradaran addresses this unintended segregation problem by proposing housing vouchers for people looking to buy homes. Right now the federal government provides vouchers to low-income workers to rent apartments and houses on the private market. Baradaran proposes expanding the voucher system to allow people to purchase homes in any neighborhood, but helped along through a “shared equity mortgage,” wherein a private investor or government actor would jointly own the property with the voucher recipient. At the end of a loan term, the equity of the property would be evenly split between the homeowner and the investor, and in the event of a default, the investor would claim the property. But the vouchers would still be awarded to people who’ve lived in formerly redlined communities.

Baradaran also acknowledges that using the redlining maps of the 1930s might be suboptimal in capturing the black families intended for the benefit, because of changing demographics. But just because the players in these neighborhoods have changed doesn’t mean the game has.

“This does not mean that segregation patterns have been disrupted or that the same forces that created the racial wealth gap are still not in play,” Baradaran told CityLab. “What it means is that many communities have been re-segregated to new spaces and it’s usually not difficult to see how these formerly redlined populations have moved to different regions.”

Black people who once lived in redlined St. Louis have been priced out to suburbs like Ferguson; black folks in once-redlined, but now-gentrified Harlem were uprooted to places like the Bronx and Yonkers. Washington, D.C., was not covered by the HOLC maps of the 1930s, as the Brookings report points out. However, that doesn’t mean that no redlining occurred. As Greater Greater Washington reported in 2016, the organization Prologue DC created the Mapping Segregation in Washington D.C. project to show how certain neighborhoods, such as Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Park View, and Petworth, refused to sell houses to African Americans in the early 20th century. Neighborhoods in the southeastern quadrant of D.C., along the Anacostia River, became redlined for low-income African Americans by default.

“Some of the redlined areas are still intact, but many are not—that does not mean that we give up on a remedy; it just means we re-map these populations,” says Baradaran. “The Brooking authors are right that we need to look carefully at those borders, but I don’t think anyone that has proposed targeting these communities with housing subsidies has been under the impression that we would use the exact same maps. I helped several of the candidates with their policies and each one, we drafted the provision to help the people who were affected by housing segregation, not just the few redlined blocks.”

Whether the redlining maps of the 1930s align neatly with today’s maps of inequity or not, the problems and legacy of racist housing and investment discrimination still need to be addressed. A landmark survey released in August by The Groundwork Collaborative found that a majority of black adults believe that the economy is rigged against them in favor of the wealthy, and 50 percent of African Americans cited finding affordable housing near their jobs or family a challenge—a third said it was a “big challenge” in their lives. These are beliefs and attitudes that can’t be easily traced or shaded over. But this is also an issue that the nation can no longer afford to be colorblind toward.

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How Cities Address the Housing Crisis, and Why It’s Not Enough

It’s a simple idea: Everyone should have a place to live. But we are failing badly at this most basic of goals, in every part of the country.

In Brooklyn and Minneapolis, where we are city council members, skyrocketing prices push families out of the neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years. It’s impossible for young people to find a place to rent, much less own. Homelessness is at record levels, and in cities like Detroit, as many as one in five renters face eviction, part of a nationwide eviction epidemic.

As members of Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials from cities and other local governments across the country, on Thursday we began a three-day convening in Durham, North Carolina, to address these issues that are infiltrating more and more cities.  

Seventy years ago, the Housing Act of 1949 set the goal “of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American,” but it has been decades since Washington was of any real help on affordable housing.

In the gap created by federal inaction, local elected officials have been taking the lead. Fifty of us are gathering today to reflect on what’s working, why we’re still falling short, and what we need to meet a simple but elusive goal—that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live.

Rather than seeing the housing crisis only as an issue of lack of supply, or only as a consequence of gentrification, we recognize the complex reality and the need to address both. On the one hand, many of our cities lack housing supply: We simply do not have enough homes for the people who want to live in our communities.

Getting rid of exclusionary zoning (long deployed by white homeowners to hoard the benefits of high property values and segregated schools) and building more housing is necessary to address the imbalance of supply and demand, but will not solve for displacement and eviction.

On the other hand, renters in gentrifying communities are traumatized by displacement and rising rents and skeptical of governments that have walked away from low-income communities for decades. They want stronger tenant protections to keep people from being evicted as rents rise and won’t support growth without meaningful reform.

To keep up with population growth and address the scale of the need we already have, we need more housing. That’s why in Minneapolis, we recently voted to become the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning, and to increase density near transit; why Denver and Austin have been implementing new housing trust funds (paid for with local taxes) in the hundreds of millions of dollars; why Durham, where we are gathering this week, is pursuing plans to create an affordable housing loan fund and proposing an affordable housing bond on this November’s ballot to support the financing of affordable construction.

It is not the case that any development will do. Good policies insure that housing meets the needs of those who need it most, and that we confront racist zoning policies of the past that produced and furthered segregation. Good planning can help make sure we’ve got the infrastructure needed to sustain growth, that we genuinely engage community voices to shape places where families will thrive, and that new units are built with the climate crisis in mind—near transit and energy-efficient.

But growth will be required. We’ll need courage to push past the fear of change, of loss of the familiar, that so often tethers us too strongly to the status quo.      

At the same time, how can we ask people to support new development if they reasonably fear it will push them out of their own neighborhoods? That’s why it must come along with strong protections against rent hikes and unwarranted evictions so that tenants can stay in their homes.

Here too, cities and states are filling in the gaps. After New York became the first city to offer a “right to counsel” law, to make sure tenants are represented by a lawyer when facing an eviction proceeding, evictions dropped in just one year. Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., are working on their own versions of the law.

Oregon, California, and New York recently passed sweeping “rent regulation” protections for tenants that limit the rent increases landlords can charge. Illinois and Colorado are considering similar legislation.

At first, these policies sound radical, in a country where private property is considered sacrosanct. But do we really believe that a landlord should be able to raise the rent on a family however high they want, usually benefitting far more from broader neighborhood trends than anything they did, even when the cost is eviction, trauma, and homelessness?

Finally, seeing the limits of what the private market can do to create housing that is affordable to all, for the long-term, cities are expanding alternative models for housing ownership. As in higher education and health care, public options can complement what the market provides. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, New York City, and Jackson, Mississippi, are all experimenting with various forms of “social housing,” like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.

These social-housing models limit speculation. Rather than as a commodity, they treat housing as a right, something everyone needs and deserves, and that we should provide together when the market is failing to do so. Social housing can also help us push past resistance to growth, the frustration that new development usually enriches a small handful of developers, and too rarely meets community needs.

Right now, these experiments are miniscule compared to the need. And that’s where the federal government must come in. More inclusive growth, stronger tenant protections, and investment in social housing are the right way forward, as our cities are showing. But to do it at the scale of the crisis we face, we’ll need resources at the scale that only the federal government can provide.

As the presidential candidates put forward plans to address the housing crisis, some more ambitious than others, hopefully they will hear us: More housing is needed. But it must come along with mechanisms to ensure that current tenants are not displaced, that enough new units are truly affordable to those who need them, and that they are more integrated and more sustainable than what we’ve built to date.

The fate of America’s cities, communities, and families hangs in the balance.

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