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How Does the Legacy of Housing Discrimination Affect Food Access?

Linking historical discriminatory housing patterns to the contemporary food environment in Baltimore
Richard C. Sadler, Usama Bilal, C. Debra Furr-Holden
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Research shows the legacy of housing discrimination influences not only where people of color live, but also investments in neighborhood food systems, such as supermarkets. This pattern—sometimes called supermarket redlining—hinders access to healthy food options and perpetuates inequitable health outcomes. This study explores the connection between supermarket redlining and housing discrimination in Baltimore, Maryland, which enacted the nation’s first official residential segregation ordinance in 1911 and remains one of America’s most segregated cities today.

This research investigates how various forms of housing discrimination in Baltimore are correlated with patterns of disinvestment leading to inequitable food access. It is the first study to examine the direct relationship between patterns of housing discrimination and an objective measure of healthy food access, derived from the Healthy Food Availability Index. The authors assembled data from multiple sources to measure redlining, blockbusting, gentrification, and food access.  They used a redlining variable from the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality Project; computed a blockbusting index based on US Census data; used a food access variable from a 2016 survey that assessed 881 stores in Baltimore; and geocoded parcel data from the Baltimore City Open GIS dataset to map the healthy food landscape in Baltimore. The gentrification metric was attained from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Then, the authors conducted a statistical analysis at the land parcel level to measure the association between the different forms of housing discrimination and food access. The study controlled for race, socioeconomic status, and age of housing. 

Key findings
  • Greater food access exists in predominately white neighborhoods and gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Evidence of past and ongoing blockbusting is strongly associated with barriers to food access and negative health outcomes. Blockbusting occurs when real estate professionals persuade white homeowners to sell their properties cheaply because of fears that people of color are moving into a neighborhood, and then resell those properties to newcomers for a profit.  Because blockbusting is not addressed by federal fair housing law it continues to be a modern-day driver of discrimination and neighborhood inequities.
  • Redlining was less strongly correlated to food access than might be expected. Formerly redlined neighborhoods have in some cases been redeveloped/gentrified (there is strong overlap between gentrification and redlining), so the legacy impacts are more pronounced in blockbusted neighborhoods as a result.
Policy implications
  • The authors suggest that cities’ development plans should explicitly address past patterns of discrimination to ensure investment reaches underserved areas and fosters healthy, livable communities.
  • Policymakers, housing developers, food and health equity advocates, and urban planners can coordinate efforts to ensure investments produce equitable development in disinvested communities and residents have access to healthy food options.