COLLEGE PARK, Md –The first American city to pass a housing segregation law, Baltimore in the early 20th century was at the forefront of the racially discriminatory calculus known as “redlining,” a range of government-sponsored real estate practices that kept the city divided between Black and white, impeded Black wealth accumulation and helped create underserved neighborhoods that continue to suffer from stark disparities to this day.
A new UMD study by public health researchers shows that people in areas long ago labeled as “red” (hazardous) or “yellow” (definitely declining) on infamous government housing maps in the 1930s today have about a five-year shorter life expectancy (5.23 year reduction for red, 4.98 for yellow) than those living in areas that had been categorized as green or blue, among other enduring systemic disadvantages and poor health outcomes.
“The shape of Baltimore’s health today is reflected in the shape of redlining,” said Shuo Jim Huang, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health and the lead author of the paper Association of historic redlining and present-day health in Baltimore published in PLOS ONE. “It is not random. These areas of lower life expectancy don’t appear in a grid as if someone has thrown darts at a map, it is an overall pattern that matches the pattern of redlining.”
Huang and his doctoral advisor, Assistant Professor Neil Sehgal, took the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps and publicly available maps and health data from 54 community statistical areas (CSAs) which are collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, and used statistical methods to analyze the intersections. The city’s community statistical areas are clusters of neighborhoods defined by the Baltimore City Department of Planning based on recognizable city neighborhoods.
In addition to a clear and stark reduction in life expectancy in the red and yellow zones, they also found that these areas had higher teen birth rates, reduced rates of prenatal care and significantly more liquor stores. These findings are likely not surprising to Baltimore residents who are familiar with the city's legacy of segregation and recognizable disparities across neighborhoods. Huang says that one of the best ways that he as an academic can support community organizing efforts is to provide data and context for things that people are already feeling and mobilizing around.
“For residents of Baltimore, there are two takeaways: if you lived or grew up in a red or yellow lined neighborhood and these are things you have felt about your neighborhood, we want this to add to the confirmation that you are right. This isn’t in your head. It is something that was done by federal, state and local policy and you have a right to be angry about it and demand change for it,” Huang said. “And there are all sorts of things being done in Baltimore around housing justice, around lead, around gentrification and we’re hoping that this adds one more thing to the arsenal for what they are trying to do.”
Sehgal and Huang discuss the policy implications of their findings in the paper. Because the discriminatory housing policies and associated disinvestment in Baltimore’s red and yellow lined neighborhoods over decades have long-lasting and significant impacts on health, policy makers need to recognize the potential impact of their decisions, they urge.
“The policies you make today might have really, really long tails,” Huang stressed. “These are things that won’t just impact people for the next one to five years, these are things that could potentially impact people for the next century or even more. You need to not only listen to the voices of the impacted communities, but to create racial equity plans to inform solutions.”