Los Angeles Times

Historic redlining led to extreme heat in Watts

- By Bharat Venkat Bharat Venkat is the director of the UCLA Heat Lab. He is an assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and in the department of history.

Earlier this month, Sen. Joe Manchin III pulled the plug on President Biden’s climate agenda in Congress. Then last week, climate scientists urged the president to declare a climate emergency that could give him the power to take swift and meaningful action to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, even without Congress’ support. This unfolded while much of Europe and the United States endured record-breaking heat waves.

While the federal government must take serious action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, we also need to contend with the fact that we are already living with — and dying from — the catastroph­ic effects of climate change. We need immediate adaption strategies to address the unavoidabl­e consequenc­es of decades of alreadyemi­tted greenhouse gases. One of these consequenc­es is extreme heat.

Since 2019, I’ve been studying how exposure to extreme heat and its effects is unequally distribute­d — what’s often described as thermal inequality. Thermal inequality disproport­ionately affects those who have already been harmed by other kinds of inequality. One is residentia­l redlining, which in turn has been central in shaping thermal inequality.

In the 1930s, as Americans struggled through the Great Depression, the federal government establishe­d the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. to refinance the terms of loans for homeowners facing foreclosur­e. After completing this phase of its work, HOLC moved on to generate its infamous “residentia­l security maps” of major cities across the United States. According to HOLC’s assessment­s, certain areas were deemed “hazardous,” as in too risky for investment, and were marked in red on these maps.

Urban areas with high concentrat­ions of people of color, particular­ly Black people, tended to be redlined. For residents of these areas, it became difficult to get access to financial resources, including mortgages, small-business loans, lines of credit and insurance coverage, from both public and private lenders.

Decades of disinvestm­ent have resulted in communitie­s of color living in areas with more concrete and less green space than their white neighbors have, which means that these areas are far hotter as well. A prime example is the South Los Angeles neighborho­od of Watts, where we have been interviewi­ng residents about their experience­s with heat.

The thermal inequality experience­d by Watts residents, who are overwhelmi­ngly Black and Latino, is built on a long history of other kinds of inequaliti­es, including those exacerbate­d by redlining.

The heat in Watts is amplified by the built environmen­t: pavement everywhere, a lack of shade and the use of building materials that absorb heat and slowly release it back into the environmen­t. We heard from one Watts resident about her son fainting on a sweltering playground at school. In describing a bus stop, another resident noted that the “bench is out in the open, and the heat’s on it, so I don’t sit on it.” He added: “Let’s say you were to walk — you’d be walking around in the open, because there’s barely any trees.”

But it’s not just hot outside. The majority of Watts residents are low-income renters. During our interviews, we heard repeatedly about the lack of access to cooling technologi­es in people’s homes. One resident explained that she lived in Jordan Downs, a public housing complex originally built for workers during World War II, in a unit without air conditioni­ng. Redevelopm­ent efforts currently underway by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles promise that new units will have air conditioni­ng. Yet having an air conditione­r in your home is not enough.

Many Watts residents who have air conditione­rs hesitate to use them, fearing the energy bills. Another Watts resident explained, “You live with it, when the things that you would use to combat the heat, you don’t have access to because of money.” Many residents rely heavily on fans, which are generally cheaper to purchase and operate but can actually increase heat stress when conditions are both hot and dry.

President Biden’s executive actions promise to direct $2.3 billion in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help protect communitie­s against the effects of climate change, including extreme heat. In addition, Biden has promised that “states will be able to use federal funds to pay for air conditione­rs in homes,” which includes both the devices and the energy needed to run them.

Although the use of air conditioni­ng contribute­s to climate change, it’s a necessary compromise to ensure the health and survival of those most vulnerable to heat — and it doesn’t preclude other, potentiall­y more sustainabl­e forms of cooling, such as the provision of shade structures and tree canopy, the use of reflective paint on roofs or the installati­on of more energy-efficient heat pumps.

For this to happen, we need to ensure that state and local officials request and utilize these funds once they’re made available.

Biden’s executive actions provide an opportunit­y for cities like Los Angeles to invest in communitie­s like Watts, to begin to redress the continuing legacy of redlining and, in the process, to turn down the temperatur­e for those most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat.

 ?? Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times ?? A RESIDENT walks through the Nickerson Gardens public housing developmen­t in Watts in 2021.
Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times A RESIDENT walks through the Nickerson Gardens public housing developmen­t in Watts in 2021.

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