Donald Sterling’s audiotaped racism is old news by now. Yet, maybe not enough attention has been given to Sterling’s long history of turning those racist ideas into practice by way of housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos. In 2003, the Justice Department filed suit against Sterling for discriminating against Black and Latino residents as well as families with children. Sterling settled the suit in 2006 and was ordered to pay $2.63 million into a fund for residents injured by his discriminatory practices and a $100,000 penalty, the largest housing discrimination settlement the Justice Department has ever received. If there is any doubt whether race based housing discrimination exists in the US today, look no further that systemic history of racism perpetuated by Donald Sterling for years and years.
Housing conditions determine a multitude of health outcomes, and the effects of housing discrimination on the lives of minorities have recently been discussed at length in several media outlets. Housing discrimination creates a ripple effect of adverse consequences because it’s tethered to almost every domain of American life from education, transportation, and crime – to employment, generational wealth, and health.
For many African Americans and Latinos being denied the opportunity to live in a place of their choosing results in having to live in lower quality housing in lower income neighborhoods. Housing discrimination takes various and subtle forms, making it difficult to pinpoint when it occurs these days. The more egregious forms of housing discrimination, such as refusing to meet with an interested buyer who is an ethnic/racial minority, has been replaced with more insidious forms, such as Black, Asians and Latinos being shown or informed about fewer available homes/apartments.
Government cuts into funding for public housing have left many low-income families living in dilapidated housing that are in desperate need of repair and renovation, which imposes great health risks. Families residing in poorly maintained housing and in poverty stricken neighborhoods are more likely to be located near fast food and corner stores, carrying inexpensive foods high in fat and salt, than grocery stores that have fresh fruit and produce. This can directly lead to poor cardiovascular health. Outside of accessing foods high in nutrients, housing amenities factor into the picture. Lack of air conditioning and heating, close proximity to industrial facilities expelling pollutants, appliances in disrepair and persistent and disruptive noise significantly impact one’s cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Furthermore, the absence of open community spaces can endanger health. Irrespective of income, living in a neighborhood with access to public parks and other walkable public spaces reduces mortality rates for residents in those communities. This connection is most profound in low-income communities. Without the option to buy healthy food and to participate in outdoor physical activities in your neighborhood, chronic conditions develop or worsen existing ones. Exposure to allergens and toxins in substandard housing is also bound to housing and is of major concern. Because cockroaches, rodents, mold and dust are more likely to inhabit low-quality, unmaintained housing, it is unsurprising that asthma and other respiratory illness are more common in residents in substandard housing. Putting the pieces together to understand health disparities takes a keen eye and reading between the lines. Housing and health outcomes, on the surface, seem like unrelated issues that do not intersect. Yet, they do.
Housing discrimination corrals ethnic and racial minorities into substandard housing in low resourced communities that contribute to health disparities. Getting a handle on health disparities as it relates to racial and ethnic minorities means addressing housing policies and housing discrimination.
Ignoring the effect of housing discrimination while focusing mostly on income, does not fully address the health conditions of Black and Latinos. It is easy to discuss the health disadvantages associated with being low-income, but income should not be the primary focus in understanding health disparities. Incorporating housing discrimination and conditions into discussions and research on health disparities provides complexity and context.
Housing affects a multitude of areas in American life. Not acknowledging the effects of housing discrimination leaves a woefully incomplete picture of current health disparities in America.
Above Image retrieved from the Walter P. Reuther Library