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Ideastream Public Media investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health.

Racism was the primary reason Ohio neighborhoods were redlined, new study shows

HOLC Cleveland redlining map 1939
University of Richmond
In the 1930s, a federal agency called the Home Owners' Loan Corporation created color-coded maps of neighborhoods in hundreds of cities across the country. These maps reflect the thinking behind housing policies that denied credit and encouraged disinvestment in Black, immigrant and poor neighborhoods now known as 'redlining.' HOLC rated neighborhoods from A, green, 'best' to D, red, 'hazardous.' This map shows the grades given to Cleveland neighborhoods.

A new study confirms what many Clevelanders have long suspected — that their neighborhoods were redlined because of anti-Black prejudice.

Around the time of the Great Depression, a federal agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps of cities across the country and drew red lines around the neighborhoods that local real estate appraisers said were undesirable for mortgage lending.

Fast forward to today. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) analyzed thousands of federal documents related to those maps to identify the specific reasons why appraisers thought certain neighborhoods were poor investments for home loans.

Search the map below to see how your neighborhood was rated and described by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s.

One of the study’s co-authors, Kristen Berg, said the written accounts show, more than economics or real estate factors, the defining reason for writing off neighborhoods was racism.

“Our study contributes really compelling evidence that the racial identity or racial designation of people in that neighborhood was profoundly important in these decisions to cut off places and families, neighborhoods from resources,” she said.

The research showed that people who lived in Ohio communities with even one Black resident were 14 times more likely to be redlined than in neighborhoods with no Black people, said Berg. She said appraisers were thorough in documenting the prejudiced reasons why they believed certain neighborhoods should be refused mortgages.

“They would make evaluations [saying], for example, ‘the current state of the neighborhood will maybe be stable for another two years. But then we're going to see continued,' quote-unquote, 'encroachments of colored families, which is going to cause problems.’”

HOLC description card
University of Richmond
This card was created by the Home Owners Lending Corporation. It describes Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood. "This area, although somewhat younger than the 4th grade area immediately to the west, is a continuation of the negro belt but has experienced, to a lesser degree, the detrimental change of ownership occupancy from white to colored," it reads.

Although the infamous HOLC maps were not directly used to deny people mortgages as previously believed, the racial attitudes and beliefs that they capture often justified a larger system of racial discrimination and disinvestment.

That's why researchers have found strong correlations between areas on the HOLC maps that were deemed "hazardous" for mortgage lenders and poor health and educational outcomes for many people who live in those areas today, said Todd Michney, associate professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech, who studies redlining but was not involved in the research at CWRU.

The impacts of redlining persist today, as people living in redlined neighborhoods deal with higher rates of lead poisoning, less tree canopy, and are more likely to suffer from asthma and diabetes, according to Berg.

Few communities have acted on the evidence of the historical discrimination that occurred in hundreds of cities nationwide, Berg said. But Evanston, Illinois has used the old maps to target home improvement subsidies, which may prove to be a model for other cities.

Cleveland wasn't the only city in Northeast Ohio to be redlined. Search our map of Akron to see how your neighborhood was described.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.