Race and Space in Chicago: How Redlining Relates to COVID-19

 /  Dec. 17, 2020, 5:04 p.m.

chicago race

With the coronavirus dominating news cycles, travel plans, and daily life on a massive scale, it seems to everyone like the virus is inescapable. For those living in formerly redlined neighborhoods, however, it truly is.

Currently, Illinois is facing its highest rates of infection during the pandemic thus far. Hovering at a statewide positivity rate of 10.3 percent, Illinois is primed to continue following Tier 3 Mitigation protocols—remote work when possible, stores and gyms operating at 25 percent capacity, and no indoor dining—throughout the holiday season and into January. Cook County, encompassing the city of Chicago, is at the forefront of this spike, with a daily average of 67.5 new cases per 100,000 residents. With a higher population density, fewer insured residents, and a greater percentage of the population living in poverty, this comes as no surprise.

In fact, these factors were used to create the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). With decimal values ranging from 0 (least at risk) to 1 (most at risk), the SVI denotes the projected ability of a population to adequately respond to and recover from both natural and human disasters. A sharp contrast to the similarly metropolitan northeastern suburb of Evanston, in which almost every neighborhood has a SVI of 0.25 and under, the majority of Chicago sits well above 0.5. These numbers indicate that the city of Chicago is more vulnerable to disasters, pandemics included, than other areas of Illinois. 

Although they were first reported in 2018, these statistics provide a window into the past: the areas with the highest Social Vulnerability Indices within Chicago are those with histories of residential redlining over seventy-five years earlier. Despite being outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 over two generations prior, discriminatory housing regulations and financial zoning continue to adversely affect the health of people of color on a mass scale. With higher rates of chronic illnesses, less space in which to social distance, and fewer insured residents on average, formerly redlined neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

In the height of the Great Depression, the United States government founded and funded the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in order to provide insured mortgage loans to homebuyers. Their methodology involved creating residential security maps, in which developed cities and towns were split up into zones based on the perceived ability of their residents to pay back these loans. From A (“best”) to D (“hazardous”), this zoning process defined who did and did not receive loans. 

While purely economic on the surface, the criteria used to determine eligibility were often racially biased, with neighborhoods of color receiving lower grades than those with mostly white residents. As white people migrated from cities to suburbs, people of color were left in urban areas with increasingly worse creditworthiness scores. Outlining these areas in red to signal the danger of loaning money to their residents, banks’ “redlining” continues to affect the economic status of people of color to this day.

Unfortunately, the city of Chicago was and is no exception. Take two towns within Cook County, whose residents could not be living in worlds further apart: 

Within zip code 60022, Glencoe, IL is home to 8,153 people, with only 269 testing positive for COVID-19 at the time of writing. The percentage of those infected hovers around 3 percent, while the percentage of adult residents who have not finished high school sits at just 0.1 percent. With an average income of over $160,000 and an average property value of just under $900,000, this high rate of education is consistent with the level of affluence of Glencoe’s residents. 

In contrast, however, zip code 60629, encompassing the Chicago Lawn neighborhood on the South Side of the city, has the highest COVID-19 rate in Illinois. With 12,678 out of their 113,916 residents testing positive at the time of publication, this area is experiencing a 10 percent positivity rate. In contrast to Glencoe, 35 percent of Chicago Lawn’s residents have less than a high school education and earn an average of around $40,000 annually. 

It should come as no surprise that Glencoe is currently 94 percent white and received an “A” grade in the 1930s, while Chicago Lawn is only 3.6 percent white and received a “C” grade in the HOLC assessment. Mirroring these disparate statistics, Glencoe boasts a 97.5 percent insurance coverage rate for its residents, while only 78.4 percent of Chicago Lawn’s residents have any form of healthcare coverage. Despite being in the same county, zip codes dictate more than just geographical location; they dictate one’s way of living. 

This is apparent not only in the COVID-19 rates in these two towns, but in the treatment of their residents’ health as a whole. The city of Chicago has one of the worst asthma rates in the United States, with the rate among children over double the national average. Through a demographic lens, the statistics become even more bleak, with 20.4 percent of African American children in Chicago dealing with asthma compared to only 9.4 percent of white children. This relates back to the redlining process, which corralled people of color into unsafe urban areas with heightened amounts of exhaust, cigarette smoke, and general air pollution

Similarly jarring is the prevalence of type 2 diabetes within the city of Chicago. Also called adult-onset diabetes due to its tendency to arise later in life, type 2 diabetes is often linked with one’s environment and access to healthcare. While Cook County as a whole hovers around the national average of 8.2 percent of adults with type 2 diabetes, predominantly Black neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of the disease. In the aforementioned Chicago Lawn neighborhood, for instance, 16.4 percent of adults live with chronic diabetes. This statistic is closely linked with the obesity rates in the area: 41.6 percent of adults living in Chicago Lawn were considered obese in 2015, compared to only 25.2 percent of adults across the county. In sum, those living in primarily Black neighborhoods in Chicago are at almost double the risk of contracting a chronic illness than the rest of Cook County and the United States as a whole. 

Substance abuse is another problem that disproportionately afflicts neighborhoods of color. Binge drinking, for instance, is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Despite this, an average of 21.2 percent of Illinois residents engaged in this activity at least once per month from 2016-2018, while 27.6 percent of Chicago Lawn residents partook. Far above the state and the national average, this formerly redlined neighborhood exhibits the strong relation between lower income brackets and alcohol overconsumption.

These conditions are highly relevant during the current pandemic, since they act as comorbidities that leave people more at risk of serious complications from COVID-19. The clearest example of this can be found in the coronavirus-related death rates in Chicago; despite making up only 18 percent of the city’s COVID-19 cases, Black residents have accounted for 41 percent of virus-related deaths. This disease can and has affected all groups of people, but people of color live with comorbidities that leave them more susceptible to the adverse health effects of  the coronavirus. 

Throughout the pandemic, the call to arms has been to social distance from people outside of your immediate household. However, residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods have much less room in which they can effectively distance. In a study released by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), parks in nonwhite communities are on average half the size of and five times more crowded than those in white neighborhoods. 

After refusing to invest in the homes of people of color in the 1930s, the United States government continues to neglect the health of Black communities today. As case numbers continue to spike, how are we to mitigate this racial disparity moving forward? There are a few clear steps, but no easy answers.

With millions getting laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, the most immediate threat seems to be financial insecurity. Facing an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent—the highest of any demographic in the United States right now—many Black adults do not have the ability to miss a day of work when they feel sick or need to quarantine. When white adults were dealing with comparable unemployment rates of 14.2 percent at the beginning of the pandemic, Americans earning less than $75,000 were offered a stimulus check of $1200 to mitigate the effects of this large-scale income decrease. Since then, white Americans have enjoyed a 58 percent decrease in the unemployment rate, with only 5.9 percent of white adults remaining unemployed as of November. Black Americans, however, experienced only a 38 percent employment recovery rate since the beginning of the pandemic in March, showing the disparate effects of our floundering economy. However, with several subsequent economic relief measures having failed in Congress since, the possibility of another stimulus check seems increasingly bleak. Consequently, Black Americans may not see the economic strain lessen as the pandemic continues to affect their lives and livelihoods. From geographical disparities in illness and infrastructure to the lack of economic relief from the government, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a direct link between the redlining of Chicago’s past and the health crises in communities of color today.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. No changes were made to the original image, which was posted by Eric Fischer and can be found here.

Carolyn Castroblanco


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