About 20 houses in South Jamaica are prone to sewer backups every few months, say homeowners, some of whom have dealt with the issue for more than a decade. But because the sewer line is on private property, the residents are left to contend with the problem on their own.
Yolanda, 61, owns a home in the predominantly Black 7th Ward neighborhood in New Orleans.
To fix her leaking roof in 2020, she had to borrow money.
“It’s one of them credit card loans,” she said. “Like interest of 30% and all that, you know. I was kind of backed up against the wall, so I just went on and made the loan, a high-interest loan.”
As a sociologist who has spent the past 10 years studying housing conditions in the U.S., I led a research team that conducted interviews with homeowners who are struggling with basic maintenance such as rotting wood siding and floors, mold, crumbling brickwork, outdated plumbing and leaking ceilings. Our first paper from this project is currently under peer review.
Like Yolanda, our interviewees – whom we gave pseudonyms to protect their privacy – were almost all Black women over the age of 60 who lived in old buildings in neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of discrimination – such as redlining and inequitable land use decisions – and disinvestment.
Once a lively district of Black businesses and homes, the 7th Ward has become an area of high poverty since the I-10 expressway was built during the 1960s directly through its heart.
Yolanda had already been living there for a decade before the highway was built.
Though brightly painted, Yolanda’s home is separated from I-10 only by an empty lot, and the constant noise and higher rates of pollution make it hard to imagine Yolanda would be able to sell her home for a profit or use its declining value as equity.
Did Yolanda take out a high-interest loan for nothing?
Was she throwing good money after bad?
These are not easy questions to answer.
Like other Black female homeowners whom we interviewed, Yolanda had to choose between debt and disrepair.
As she explained, she was “backed up against a wall.”
The racist and sexist history of disrepair
According to a 2022 analysis of federal census data by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly a third of homeowners who earn less than US$32,000 – about 4.8 million people – spent nothing on maintenance or improvements.
I have noticed worrying trends in the circumstances of those who live in housing in disrepair.
In my book, “Stacked Decks,” I explore the connections between urban housing, race, gender and income inequality.
Unaddressed repairs such as leaky roofs or broken pipes frequently result in code violations and court cases, which prompt liens, foreclosures and the possibility of homelessness.
The situation is worse for Black women, who have much less wealth, on average, than their white or male counterparts. Without money to pay for repairs, female homeowners face incurring more debt if they make repairs.
Doris, a homeowner in Chicago, told us in 2021 about her old and leaking roof and the flooding in her basement. She explained that the flooding was partially due to the overflowing of nearby city-owned drainage pipes.
“Every time it rains, the water comes in,” she said. “By the sewer not being clean … so much water came in my basement that my washer and dryer was floating up on the water.” An insurance claim covered some of the costs of this repair for Doris, and the city is experimenting with new ways to tackle floodwater, but water still gets in when it rains hard.
Buildings naturally deteriorate over time, because of the combination of aging construction materials and weather. At some point, all homes need repairs and preventive maintenance.
Chicagoan Kimberly cares for her grandson almost full time and told us about her concerns about the rotted wood that has made her back porch dangerous to stand on.
“We don’t go out of the back door at all,” Kimberly said. “We have not used that in years. Four years now. Four years we have not used the back porch at all.”
Disrepair and environmental injustice
Disrepair is an issue of environmental injustice. The government has a responsibility to help with repairs because of its role in the housing discrimination that has created such racial disparities in housing conditions.
But, like disaster relief, assistance to homeowners is uneven and hard to obtain.
Although all homes need repair work over time, disrepair disproportionately affects people with the fewest resources, because maintenance is expensive. Disrepair also causes health and safety issues, as do other environmental injustices, such as the placement of highways and location of polluting factories.
Disrepair can also force people to leave their homes because they cannot afford repairs.
But making repairs can exacerbate debt.
What all this means is that owning a home, or even paying off a mortgage, does not guarantee that homes remain affordable, an asset or a safe shelter.
Recognizing disrepair as environmental racism could be one step in ensuring homes are all these things.
The Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a letter Thursday that it is opening a civil rights investigation into the state of Mississippi’s role in the breakdown of Jackson’s water system.
The letter is in response to a complaint the NAACP filed on Sept. 27 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges Mississippi has discriminated against the city on the basis of race, and that the state has “deprived” Jackson of federal funds intended for maintaining safe drinking water systems.
Mississippi, which has no Black statewide elected officials, is 38% Black and 59% white. Jackson is 83% Black and 16% white.
The EPA specified in the letter that it will investigate whether the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi State Department of Health discriminated against Jackson in their funding of water programs. It will also investigate whether the two state agencies have safeguards and policies to protect against discrimination as required by Title VI.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is negotiating with President Joe Biden’s housing officials over potential city reforms after federal investigators accused Chicago of environmental racist zoning and land-use practices.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has held off on making an official declaration of next steps in an almost two-year civil rights investigation. The agency could force the city to make significant and permanent changes to its planning processes or risk losing millions in federal dollars.
The city of Chicago is violating the civil rights of its residents by relocating polluting businesses from white communities into Black and Latino areas that already are overwhelmed with environmental and health issues, federal officials have found after a nearly two-year investigation.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is demanding that Chicago change its unlawful planning, zoning and land-use policies so they don’t discriminate against communities of color, according to a letter HUD sent to the city.
If Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration doesn’t agree to work on a plan to overhaul its processes and policies, City Hall could lose hundreds of millions in federal housing money.
A recent University of Michigan study found a correlation between the Flint water crisis and a decrease in academic performance for school-age children.
In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money. However, later studies revealed elevated levels of lead in the blood of the city’s residents. The city switched its water source to Lake Huron in 2015, but the damage had already been done—approximately 99,000 residents had already been exposed to lead poisoning. Former Governor Rick Snyder and eight former state officials faced criminal charges for the Flint water crisis in 2021.
Samuel Owusu, a research analyst at the Educational Policy Initiative, said one of the defining aspects of the study was its use of non-educational data—data not relating to academic, educator, demographic and student information—to show the effect the Flint water crisis had on student performance.
In this Spark series we learn from scholars writing from multiple positionalities: those living in environmental justice communities, scholars based in traditional academic settings working in partnership with environmental justice communities, scholars from environmental justice communities working within traditional academic settings, and those creating innovative local solutions while experiencing environmental collapse. The series encompasses work that employs multiple formats, takes an explicitly anti-racist approach to inform public discussion, and lifts up leadership from those historically marginalized from decision making processes.