How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering
RICHMOND, Va. — On a hot summer’s day, the neighborhood of Gilpin quickly becomes one of the most sweltering parts of Richmond.
There are few trees along the sidewalks to shield people from the sun’s relentless glare. More than 2,000 residents, mostly Black, live in low-income public housing that lacks central air conditioning. Many front yards are paved with concrete, which absorbs and traps heat. The ZIP code has among the highest rates of heat-related ambulance calls in the city.
There are places like Gilpin all across the United States. In cities like Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Portland and New York, neighborhoods that are poorer and have more residents of color can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city.
And there’s growing evidence that this is no coincidence. In the 20th century, local and federal officials, usually white, enacted policies that reinforced racial segregation in cities and diverted investment away from minority neighborhoods in ways that created large disparities in the urban heat environment.
The consequences are being felt today.
To escape the heat, Sparkle Veronica Taylor, a 40-year-old Gilpin resident, often walks with her two young boys more than a half-hour across Richmond to a tree-lined park in a wealthier neighborhood. Her local playground lacks shade, leaving the gyms and slides to bake in the sun. The trek is grueling in summer temperatures that regularly soar past 95 degrees, but it’s worth it to find a cooler play area, she said.
“The heat gets really intense, I’m just zapped of energy by the end of the day,” said Ms. Taylor, who doesn’t own a car. “But once we get to that park, I’m struck by how green the space is. I feel calmer, better able to breathe. Walking through different neighborhoods, there’s a stark difference between places that have lots of greenery and places that don’t.”
Sparkle Veronica Taylor’s children, Apollo, left, and his brother Ax at the Gilpin Court complex where they live.
Ms. Taylor often walks more than a mile so her two sons can play in a tree-covered park. “It’s a cooler space,” she said. “Just a totally different environment.”
To understand why many cities have such large heat disparities, researchers are looking closer at historical practices like redlining.
In the 1930s, the federal government created maps of hundreds of cities, rating the riskiness of different neighborhoods for real estate investment by grading them “best,” “still desirable,” “declining” or “hazardous.” Race played a defining role: Black and immigrant neighborhoods were typically rated “hazardous” and outlined in red, denoting a perilous place to lend money. For decades, people in redlined areas were denied access to federally backed mortgages and other credit, fueling a cycle of disinvestment.
In 2016, these old redlining maps were digitized by historians at the University of Richmond. Researchers comparing them to today’s cities have spotted striking patterns.
Across more than 100 cities, a recent study found, formerly redlined neighborhoods are today 5 degrees hotter in summer, on average, than areas once favored for housing loans, with some cities seeing differences as large as 12 degrees. Redlined neighborhoods, which remain lower-income and more likely to have Black or Hispanic residents, consistently have far fewer trees and parks that help cool the air. They also have more paved surfaces, such as asphalt lots or nearby highways, that absorb and radiate heat.
“It’s uncanny how often we see this pattern,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and a co-author of the study. “It tells us we really need to better understand what was going on in the past to create these land-use patterns.”
Heat is the nation’s deadliest weather disaster, killing as many as 12,000 people a year. Now, as global warming brings ever more intense heat waves, cities like Richmond are drawing up plans to adapt — and confronting a historical legacy that has left communities of color far more vulnerable to heat.
The appraisers in Richmond were transparent in their racism asthey mapped the city in the 1930s as part of a Depression-era federal program to rescue the nation’s collapsing housing markets.
Every Black neighborhood, no matter its income level, was outlined in red and deemed a “hazardous” area for housing loans. The appraisers’ notes made clear that race was a key factor in giving these neighborhoods the lowest grade.
By contrast, white neighborhoods, described as containing “respectable people,” were often outlined in blue and green and were subsequently favored for investment.
Richmond, like many cities, was already segregated before the 1930s by racial zoning laws and restrictive covenants that barred Black families from moving into white neighborhoods. But the redlining maps, economists have found, deepened patterns of racial inequality in cities nationwide in ways that reverberated for decades. White families could more easily get loans and federal assistance to buy homes, building wealth to pass on to their children. Black families, all too often, could not.
That inequity likely influenced urban heat patterns, too. Neighborhoods with white homeowners had more clout to lobby city governments for tree-lined sidewalks and parks. In Black neighborhoods, homeownership declined and landlords rarely invested in green space. City planners also targeted redlined areas as cheap land for new industries, highways, warehouses and public housing, built with lots of heat-absorbing asphalt and little cooling vegetation.
Disparities in access to housing finance “created a snowball effect that compounded over generations,” said Nathan Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins who helped digitize the maps. Redlining wasn’t the only factor driving racial inequality, but the maps offer a visible symbol of how federal policies codified housing discrimination.
Congress outlawed redlining by the 1970s. But the practice has left lasting marks on cities.