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Over several decades, federal homeownership policies concentrated minority and/or poor families in neighborhoods where old, poorly maintained homes dominated the housing stock. One such policy, redlining, has resulted in a disproportionate exposure to environmental health hazards among low-income children and children of color. One of these health hazards is lead, which can result in poor development, including poor cognitive and behavioral outcomes that can lead to reduced academic success and lower lifetime income.

Redlining refers to federally sanctioned unfair lending practices and social policies that denied home loans to even well-qualified black families by treating them as too risky for federally backed mortgages from the Federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, a mortgage refinancing entity. As a result, neighborhoods with residents who were predominately black, or from any other minority group, were deemed unfit for investment and coded as red on city maps.

Families in these redlined areas were denied loans, and developers were denied subsidies and loans to build in these areas; as a result, the housing stock fell into disrepair. People of color were often unable to purchase houses or refinance mortgages, or were barred from taking residence in suburbs, making it difficult for them to move out of redlined areas while white families could more easily transition to suburbs. This, in turn, made it harder for black and other racial and ethnic minority residents to enjoy residential mobility and served to entrench the system of neighborhood segregation. Over time, homes, schools, and small businesses in predominantly black or integrated communities diminished in value due to disinvestment and segregation. Black people were unable to obtain loans to purchase homes—even in redlined neighborhoods—and developer investments were deterred by a lack of funding, leading to neighborhood underdevelopment and deterioration. As a result, residents were unable to attain equity to allow their children and grandchildren to become homeowners.

Redlining resulted in a large disparity in homeownership and an increased wealth gap between whites and various racial and ethnic minority groups. (Cuyahoga County, Ohio provides a salient example.) While redlined residents fell behind, white families were able to move to suburban neighborhoods deemed “desirable” on the Federal Housing Administration’s scores, resulting in increased vacancies and declining property values in predominantly black and integrated neighborhoods.

Although President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, removing racial language from federal housing policy, the effects of redlining still relegate black families to socioeconomically disadvantaged and racially segregated neighborhoods. Today, approximately 60 percent of black Americans live in places that were redlined before 1968 and have subsequently declined in value. Elevated blood lead levels in black and other minority children have been observed in redlined, segregated cities. One study reported that, from 1995 to 2013, black children ages one to five had consistently higher blood lead levels compared to their white counterparts. According to another study, as recently as 2006, 28 percent of African American households faced housing-related lead exposure risks, compared with 20 percent of white families.

Numerous public health efforts have sought to mitigate the effects of lead exposure and poisoning on children, but even more can be done to protect poor and minority children from further exposure. To that end, Child Trends recently contributed to a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which children are exposed to lead, published by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. This report included recommendations for the housing sector to address lead exposure. These recommendations include:

  • Reduce lead in drinking water in homes built before 1986 and in other places children frequent, such as schools and child care centers.
  • Increase funding (through the Department of Housing and Urban Development) to replace windows coated with lead paint, fix peeling paint, clean up contaminated dust, and treat toxic soil outside the homes of low-income families built before 1960, while ensuring that such homes remain affordable.
  • Increase enforcement of the Environmental Protection Agency’s renovation, repair, and painting rule, which would also reduce children’s exposure to lead.

The lasting effects of redlining on the health and well-being of children over many generations compel us as a nation to act now to finish addressing the threat of lead exposure. While much has been accomplished in recent decades to reduce children’s exposure to lead, our progress has not been fully realized among children in predominantly minority, low-income communities.

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