On April 5, a study released by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health directly linked air pollution to the probability of more severe COVID-19 cases. It is now well known that COVID-19 acts upon pre-existing conditions and respiratory illnesses caused by prolonged exposure to air pollution, such as asthma. This could be a major factor in why 62 percent of COVID-19 victims in New York are black and Latino, despite those groups representing 51 percent of the population.
Residents in the South Bronx inhale the emissions of the hundreds of daily trucks going in and out of the nearby Fresh Direct warehouse, and exhaust emitted by constant traffic on the four nearby highways, as well as from the printing presses of the Wall Street Journal, a parcel depot and sewage works not far away. They need asthma hospitalizations at five times the national average and at rates 21 times higher than other NYC neighborhoods, such as the Upper East Side.
Urban municipalities are often at the epicenter of land use conflicts that pit low-income communities of color against polluting industries – such as online grocers and their trucking operations – and the governmental agencies that permit them. The presence of these industries increases the rate of exposure to PM2.5 particles (Particulate Matter), which are harmful droplets in the air that are proven to cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. As a result, low-income minority populations suffer from increased chronic exposure to PM2.5 and other airborne pollutants from sources such as buildings and transportation when compared to other populations in New York City.
These conflicts are perpetuated by purportedly “race-neutral” land use policies, such as segregationist zoning ordinances and the down-zoning of stable communities of color to industrial zones. Using its zoning powers, New York City effectively expanded industrial zones in communities of color through successive waves of what Maantay terms “expulsive” zoning. “Expulsive” zoning allows more affluent areas to become more residential and areas that are predominantly communities of color to become more industrial through low land pricing. The city sets up conditions through zoning codes to allow for co-location of these industrial uses in low-income communities of color that they deem less desirable.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is supposed to ensure that the city’s 2.2 million rental apartments are safely habitable. However, the agency has a history of taking a gentle hand with landlords who deprive tenants of basic services, as it often declines to enforce the maximum penalties for even the worst offenders. To examine how the city handled these cases, in 2018 The New York Times analyzed city housing data, interviewed tenants and advocates and reviewed hundreds of housing court cases, taking as a sample the 126 cases filed for serious building-wide issues in Manhattan last year. In more than two-thirds of the cases, the city settled for less than 15 percent of penalties available under the law. Most were closer to 10 percent. The median settlement was $4,000. Landlords who lie about making repairs also face minimal repercussions. One landlord, who filed 40 certifications with the city over two years that falsely claimed violations had been fixed, paid less than $3,000 in fines, The Times found. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development thus does little to reprimand landlords who deprive tenants of basic services, declining to enforce the maximum penalties for even the worst offenders. This shows that a lack in policies preventing pollution inequity is not the only reason for these health disparities –the city must work to better implement existing policies and reduce corruption and greed in the real estate industry.
While local land use laws have historically been used to uphold racial and economic disparities in New York City, they can be used to dismantle these oppressive systems as well. In order to address the environmental injustices against low-income communities, policies that promote industry in low-income communities at a disproportionate rate should stop. Instead, the city must look at long-term structural solutions to pollution inequality that includes climate mitigation, pollution prevention, community organization and promoting equity. Affluent communities have gradually become racially and economically segregated, benefiting from a legacy of structural racism and white privilege, and can effectively live a comfortable distance away from noxious industrial land while protecting their neighborhoods from industrial hazards through the use of expulsive zoning.
The importance of zoning and land use can then be seen as relational – it matters not just where industrial uses are permitted, but also where they are not permitted. This is true now more than ever, as maps of the coronavirus outbreak rates in New York City by zip code indicate that one’s chances of contriving the virus directly correlates to the socioeconomic status of their communities. In fact, this map is nearly identical to the rates of respiratory illnesses by zip code, proving that these low-income communities, which are continuously burdened with pollution inequity, are more susceptible to be at-risk for future pandemics.
Noori Nadeem is a student at Hunter College majoring in Human Biology. She will receive her Certificate in the Public Policy Program at the Roosevelt House in May 2020. Following graduation, Noori plans on applying to Public Health programs. She is from Queens, New York.