Chicago’s history of redlining and what it means for POC neighborhoods today

Eden Drajpuch, Feature Facilitator

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As Chicago grapples with its environmental future, Evanston’s geographic proximity to the city forces Evanstonians to reckon with how a history of racist housing practices has led to environmental discrimination against certain low-income neighborhoods.  

“I don’t think people know much about the correlation between climate change and how it affects low-income areas. As an Evanstonian, I feel pretty estranged from this issue,” junior Agustina Arce says. 

There are many industrial repercussions on low-income communities in Chicago as a result of redlining. Redlining is a practice that limits financial services to people living in specific neighborhoods. Usually, these areas are occupied by the majority of the residents identifying as low-income families of color, according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago

Redlining began in 1934 with the National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration [FHA]. The FHA was designed to mobilize an unstable economy following the Great Depression by providing mortgage loans to prospective buyers. However, these loans tended to be for buyers who were purchasing homes on the cusp of metropolitan areas with new construction, which were deemed “safer” by the FHA.

The FHA also exercised this authority as an excuse to deem certain inner-city neighborhoods as “unsafe,” and therefore unworthy of loans and investments. 

According to an article from Boston Fair Housing, “race and ethnicity were used to determine mortgage eligibility in communities, thus perpetuating housing segregation. The FHA allowed personal and agency bias in favor of all white suburban subdivisions to affect the kinds of loans it guaranteed, as applicants in these subdivisions were generally considered better credit risks.” 

In Chicago, many of the neighborhoods that were deemed unsafe by the FHA in the 1940s are still lower-income neighborhoods with large POC populations. Some of these areas are neighborhoods on the south and southeast sides of Chicago, according to Debbie Chizewer, a Montgomery Foundation Environmental Law Fellow at Northwestern Law School.

Additionally, neighborhoods in Chicago that were not supported by the FHA were also areas that experienced an increase in industrialization, and later on, pollution. 

“Public housing is put in certain communities because the cost of the land is going to be lower in polluted areas. Lower-income communities of color live there because the Federal Housing Administration discriminated against people of color,” Chizewer explains in an interview with The Evanstonian. “Then when you combine that discrimination with the lack of political power in these communities, they become sacrifical to industries.” 

Chizewer’s work revolves around advocating for members of low-income communities that are polluted by large industries. This pollution can include contaminated soil, polluted air and contaminated or unsafe water. 

“These areas are often more susceptible to flooding. They [the residents] are populations that live in low lying areas, which are the same areas where property values aren’t high,” Chizewer says. “The neglect of low-income communities that are contaminated is particularly problematic because large industries do not make known the risks.” 

Additionally, industrial pollution often poses a severe health risk to those living in close proximities to contaminated areas. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 5% of all lung cancers and 2% of lung and heart diseases are the result of outdoor pollution.

Industrial pollution often releases carcinogens into the air, which cause cancer. Particulate matter, which is often a combination of dust, smoke and pollen, can greatly increase the chances of developing asthma and can cause sudden cardiovascular episodes and diseases. 

Although Chizewer acknowledges the complexities of this issue, she works with organizations to combat them and lessen the inequities for neighborhoods in Chicago that are affected by large industries. 

“We [Northwestern Law School Environmental Clinic] work with non-profit organizations in Chicago whose mission is to provide energy efficiency for all communities. The work we do includes bringing political knowledge to low-income communities, supporting organizations that help in other ways, and more,” Chizewer says. 

Evanston residents also agree that there are potential solutions to this issue. 

“I think Chicago can move beyond this by taking greater measures to ensure all people, regardless of where they live, have equal protection from contamination,” says Arce.