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U.S. housing legacy puts some Black neighborhoods at higher flood risk

TORONTO, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Homes in U.S. neighborhoods with large Black or minority populations once marked as undesirable for loans are in greater danger of flooding caused by climate change, according to a study released Monday.

In the 1930s, the practice of “redlining” took place when banks and insurers refused loans in parts of cities mainly with large minority populations marked in red on maps, reducing opportunities to own homes and investment in those areas.

These neighborhoods tended to be in the least appealing areas, such as on flood plains, and this was compounded by a lack of updates to infrastructure over time, like drainage systems or green spaces, to deal with flooding.

According to new analysis of 38 major cities by real estate brokerage Redfin, there are now $107 billion worth of homes in formerly “redlined” areas at high flood risk compared to $85 billion worth of homes in areas marked green as best for loans.

Redfin said this disproportionately impacted Black people, as nearly 60% of households in neighborhoods once designated undesirable for mortgage lending were non-white, compared with 40% of households in neighborhoods deemed desirable for loans.

“That policy has a lingering effect, even now, because there were decades of disinvestment in those communities,” Redfin senior economist Sheharyar Bokhari, co-author of the study, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“When you look at those (redlining) maps, they look strikingly similar to high flood risk (maps),” he added.

The findings come as U.S. President Joe Biden prepares his $2 trillion infrastructure plan which is expected to focus on tackling climate change.

During the 2020 election, he said that 40% would go to disadvantaged communities, which evidence suggests are more severely impacted by environmental hazards like pollution, extreme heat and storms associated with the warming climate.

In Sacramento, California, nearly 22% of homes in former redlined areas face a high flood risk compared to about 12% in “greenlined” areas, the largest gap of any city, according to the Redfin found.

New York had the second biggest gap, followed by Boston and Chicago.

Nathan Connolly, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, said marginalized communities tend to live in areas which are least appealing and most vulnerable to climate shocks.

“Every single stage of a region’s economic growth tends to foist onto Black and Brown populations the lion’s share of the burdens of that growth,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The study’s authors pointed to a number of examples where communities of color suffered the most from storms.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, four of the seven zip codes with the costliest flood damage were at least 75% Black, it said.

And as sea levels rise and flooding becomes more common - with 2020 a record-breaking year for Atlantic hurricanes - there are concerns that financial institutions like banks and insurers will raise costs for the worst-affected households.

Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate at the Tulane School of Architecture, calls this “bluelining”.

Much like redlining, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, institutions could begin drawing their own lines around neighborhoods at environmental risk, dictating the terms and availability of mortgages.

Therefore, he said, federal investment in infrastructure is urgently needed to help mitigate these risks. (Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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