NAACP environmental justice webinar

A group of experts gathered for a Wednesday evening webinar hosted by the Lancaster branch of the NAACP to bring attention to “environmental injustice."


“Decades after historical segregation shaped the neighborhoods they live in, Black people and other people of color are still more likely to reside in homes that leave them subjected to poor environmental conditions,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro wrote in the Aug. 28 edition, summarizing the experts who appeared at a recent environmental justice webinar hosted by the Lancaster branch of the NAACP. They described the systemic racism that informed decades of local real estate decisions and in turn led to wealth and health disparities. And they noted some things that can be done now in neighborhoods in which people of color reside to lessen the risk of worse outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s incredibly important — even amid the crush of news — to amplify the issues the NAACP webinar raised.

Even before COVID-19, we needed to talk more frankly about the systemic racism that has left many people of color at a terrible disadvantage in housing. Some — but not enough — of those conversations were happening.

“When I look at this data, I see the legacy of redlining and the cycle of disinvestment that continues to perpetuate poor housing conditions and rent-burdened families,” Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace wrote in a May 2019 op-ed. “I am reminded of the 2009 Franklin & Marshall College study that found $19 million annually leaves the Southeast alone in the form of rents paid to owners in ZIP codes outside Lancaster city.”

Some unjust practices and attitudes, in a new guise, continue today. This summer, the Trump administration eliminated the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, about which President Donald Trump tweeted: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”

We agree with Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who noted in a July 30 column that Trump’s action and tweet were “a message to White people they can go ahead and do whatever they feel is necessary to keep Black people and Latinos from moving into their neighborhoods.”

Policies and statements that perpetuate (or even revive) racism in housing cannot be tolerated.

We need action that protects those who have been disenfranchised and institutionalizes justice and equality.

For more on what must be done, we circle back to the NAACP’s local webinar on environmental justice.

Carolin Mejia, the local group’s environmental justice chair, and Jacqueline Patterson, director of the national NAACP’s Environmental Justice Program, “described how systems built on racism have largely kept minorities from amassing the type of wealth that would allow them to own modern properties in more environmentally friendly areas,” Sauro wrote.

Those systems steered people of color away from whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. And toward older homes with environmental drawbacks. Another negative: Those older homes have often been available only for rental, not purchase, denying families of color the opportunity to accumulate wealth and get ahead.

“The wealth differentials start there,” Patterson said.

“The most vulnerable people are the least protected,” Mejia added.

The homes that people of color often had to settle for can contain environmental factors that cause horrific and lifelong bad health outcomes.

“In Lancaster, those older homes have often been coated in lead paint, according to Susan Baldrige, director at the Lancaster County-based Partnership for Public Health,” Sauro wrote. “When ingested, that lead paint can damage children’s brains, leading to cognitive breakdowns that cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.”

All of systemic racism cannot be solved overnight, but we must work rapidly to address the worst and most hazardous cases of environmental injustice. We are encouraged that Darren Parmer, Lancaster city’s housing rehabilitation and lead specialist, has been directing a local remediation program funded by nearly $10 million granted to the city by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development last year.

With that, Parmer’s team is working to address lead problems in more than 700 older residences in southern Lancaster, Sauro reported.

“It’s about giving every child a chance to thrive at the starting line and not behind it,” Mayor Sorace said last year in announcing the grant.

We agree. And these projects are especially urgent in this time of COVID-19, when shutdowns have more children spending time inside homes with lead paint.

A further plus, Parmer noted, is that the abatement program has been expanded beyond owner-occupied residences and is now available for rental properties. That’s crucial.

Of course, as Mejia noted, people of color in the most vulnerable housing situations need much more than just lead remediation. Environmental injustice continues to leave them behind in too many ways.

Just one area that might be addressed: “Looking to clean energy, specifically community solar projects capable of supplying energy to more than one property,” Sauro wrote, citing an idea from Yesenia Rivera, director of energy, equity and inclusion at the D.C.-based advocacy organization Solar United Neighbors.

We need many more ideas like this. And action.

The situation surrounding housing is complicated, for sure. We’ve long urged, for example, that increased affordable housing be made available in the suburbs, because the city carries too heavy a burden.

But here’s the bottom line: Wherever housing is, it needs to be safe. Homes are supposed to be havens, not places of risk. 

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