By Camille Brown, Fair Housing Program Coordinator
Recently, there’s been a lot of attention on the manmade disaster in Flint that has resulted in an entire community suffering from the disastrous effects of lead poisoning. Day by day, more sickening details surface that point to a tragic disregard for the welfare of the Flint community by those government officials sworn to protect it, all in the interest of saving a miniscule amount of money. The Flint disaster is nearly incomprehensible, unacceptable, and raises the specter of several broader implications and trends. First, we must acknowledge that the environmental injustice perpetrated on the residents of Flint is not unique or even unusual. Second, we must explore its connection to the issue of fair housing. Finally, confronting environmental racism should challenge those of us concerned with social justice to work more collectively and innovatively.
While the Flint example may be particularly clear, environmental injustice has a deeply-rooted history in communities across the country. In Soccoro, Texas, developers built new homes in the early 2000s. In order to protect the new development from flooding, they redirected the drainage towards a lower income community called Thunder Road. Thunder Road residents voiced concerns over the drainage plans but nonetheless, when the next big rainstorm arrived many of those residents found themselves without homes. Similarly, in the predominantly black community of Chester, Pennsylvania, residents bear the burden of five toxic waste plants. One of these plants is responsible for all of the municipal waste for Chester County and surrounding states. Consequently, the city has a cancer rate, mortality rate and child mortality rate higher than any other locale in the state. Elsewhere, schools in New Orleans are still being built on toxic waste dumps that have affected black neighborhoods since the early part of last century, and Washington, DC still has waste transfer stations concentrated in black neighborhoods. The particulars of each situation may vary, but around the country it’s clear that entire communities are deemed unworthy of equal protection simply because of the demographics that form them.
We also can’t afford to downplay the connection between environmental justice and fair housing. Environmental justice is centered on the equitable implementation of environmental policies and ensuring that those policies don’t have damaging effects on the population. Fair housing is centered on dismantling housing practices that lead to segregated and underdeveloped communities. What we see in Flint sits at the intersection of those two failures. A city that is highly segregated and largely low income gets easily ignored. Policies, including those which dictate appropriate lead levels, don’t get implemented equally. This leaves low income communities of color disproportionately at-risk for environmental health hazards. The bottom line is that an individual’s or family’s ability to choose which neighborhood to live in is critical, but we must also be committed to fighting to preserve and sustain neighborhoods in which people are already invested.
In order to be truly effective, environmental justice and fair housing practitioners must work hand in hand and view these issues with an intersectional slant. Both movements have roles to play, particularly as low-income and communities of color are facing environmental issues in ways that other communities are not. A recent article in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal explores the ways the Fair Housing movement can be used to further environmental justice. One of the key strengths of the Fair Housing Act, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, is that it provides for disparate impact claims and not just cases based on discriminatory intent. The Fair Housing Act does not dictate that intent be proven, instead focusing on impact. For example, in Warsaw, NC, environmental advocates are urging local agencies to investigate the disparate impact of policies that allow hog waste to be dumped around communities of color. Finally, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development has created initiatives and issued grants to fair housing advocates seeking to counteract and provide relief from these practices of discrimination outside of the courtroom.
Environmental justice and fair housing advocates are fighting many of the same battles. As each movement goes forward on its own, we must recognize opportunities to join together for unique remedies to these pervasive issues.