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UMD Study Shows Lower Life Expectancy in Redlined Neighborhoods

Long-Defunct Housing Discrimination Policies From 1930s Continue to Harm Baltimore Residents

By Kelly Blake Jan 19, 2022

People who live in areas of Baltimore targeted nearly a century ago for discrimination under the nation’s first housing segregation law today have shorter lifespans than other city residents, new University of Maryland research shows.

The city was at the forefront of “redlining,” a range of now-defunct 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.

The study by School of Public Health researchers published today in PLOS ONE shows that people residing in areas labeled “red” (hazardous) or “yellow” (definitely declining) on government housing maps from the 1930s have a five-year shorter life expectancy (5.23 year reduction for red areas, 4.98 for yellow) than those living in areas categorized under the scheme as green (best) or blue (still desirable)—along with 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 and the lead author of the paper. “It is not random.”

Huang and his doctoral advisor, Assistant Professor Neil Sehgal, used statistical methods to analyze the old Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps against newer maps and health data collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance from 54 community statistical areas, which correspond to clusters of Baltimore’s recognizable neighborhoods.

In addition to the stark reduction in life expectancy, they also found higher teen birth rates, reduced rates of prenatal care and significantly more liquor stores in red and yellow zones.

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 said; one of the best ways that he as an academic can support community organizing efforts is to provide data and context on topics around which people are already mobilizing.

“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,” he said. “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.”

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, policymakers need to recognize the potential impact of their decisions, Sehgal and Huang urge in the paper.

“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.”

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