Race, Health & Housing: Connecting the Dots

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October 3, 2016; City Limits

Amanda Reddy and David Jacobs take a look at the intersections of race, health and justice in an article entitled “Building Justice: Genetic Code, ZIP Code and Housing Code All Affect Health and Equality” for the magazine City Limits. In support of their thesis about the linkages between African American health disparities and geographic (“zip codes”) and housing (“housing codes”) conditions, the authors cite numerous studies. Asthma and lead poisoning are featured among the health conditions caused by poor housing. Lack of access to quality healthcare and healthy foods are intervening variables that undermine health outcomes. The authors go on to cite the reductions in health problems shown in the studies of the Move to Opportunity programs as evidence that housing and neighborhood account for the health disadvantages.

Ironically, the authors miss a key factor: Discrimination itself matters. A wealth of studies have made the connection between discrimination and health, and the newest ones show the stress of racial isolation underlies chronic disease where there are dramatic health disparities between African Americans and whites.

In the face of mounting evidence that discrimination and racial isolation are themselves sources of racial health disparities, it seems a little naive to believe that simply repairing substandard housing or facilitating moves to more prosperous neighborhoods will cure the damage done by the “shocks” of living through racial discrimination and economic insufficiency. While addressing housing and segregation may reduce the frequency or severity of “shocks,” as is suggested in the book Coming of Age in the Other America, that reduction may not guarantee social mobility.

Merely addressing housing conditions like removing lead hazards and asthma triggers, or reducing housing insecurity by expanding rent subsidies, or promoting household mobility to opportunity-rich neighborhoods may not be sufficient to modify racial health disparities. Ending discrimination, in both its forms of outright bigotry and implicit bias, may be another necessary intervention.

Kudos to City Limits for tackling this complex subject in a multi-part series on inequality. “Building Justice,” supported in part by Enterprise Community Partners, marks the magazine’s 40th anniversary with an ambitious undertaking worthy of consideration. City Limits is a nonprofit journal that features stories about cutting edge community development issues. The City Limits website describes their organizational genealogy in a way that seems reminiscent of many nonprofit startups.

In early February 1976, a newsletter was printed on yellow paper, stapled and sent out to housing advocates around New York. The name across the top was “City Limits.” Over the subsequent four decades, City Limits would grow to become the city’s leading source for policy news and investigative reporting on issues facing low-income communities. The design, the staff and our medium changed. Our commitment to reporting on the New York that most media don’t cover did not.

Survival with style is worthy of acclaim.—Spencer Wells