Where growing up depends on the wind; on building lives near freeways
by Casey Fischl
The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2017 Report identified Los Angeles as the number one polluted city by ozone and number four by particulate pollution. Low-income, communities of color in Los Angeles suffer from disproportionate exposure to this health degrading pollution. A key example of the environmental injustice in Los Angeles is Boyle Heights where 94% of the population is Hispanic, 37% of the population lacks access to health insurance, the median household income is $33,250, and the neighborhood is ranked in the 96-100 percentile according to CalEnviroScreen.
Despite research conducted more than a decade ago which led air quality officials to recommend avoiding building homes within 500 feet of freeways, there are 2.5 million Southern Californians living in this heavily polluted location. In the City of Los Angeles alone, there are 500,000 residents living in this high risk region. Government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have published reports citing adverse health effects associated with living so close to a direct source of air pollution, including: reduced lung function, asthma, cardiovascular disease and premature death. Despite this knowledge, Los Angeles officials continue to build housing in close proximity to some of the most congested freeways in the region.
Many of the new housing developments being built so close to the freeways are affordable housing units. With Los Angeles County’s average monthly rent for an apartment projected to rise to $2,358 by 2020, there is a serious lack in affordable housing options. In 2018, there were 52,765 people in the greater Los Angeles area who were experiencing homelessness. These staggering numbers have led Los Angeles officials to award $65 million in cap-and-trade money to the development of affordable housing units like Sun Valley Senior Veterans Apartments. This project is one of at least ten other affordable housing developments that are located within 500 feet of a freeway.
Although state and city government officials are aware of the health risks, the California Air Resources Board established new guidelines in 2017 for diminishing the risks associated with living near high-volume roadways. These guidelines suggest that strategies including sound walls, vegetation barriers and high-efficiency air filters can reduce residents’ exposure to particulates. The officials responsible for the approval of these new projects claim that the public health benefits of additional housing and more density near public transit outweigh the negative health impacts.
Opponents of government subsidized housing in close proximity to the freeway, including health scientists, argue that the California Environmental Protection Agency’s mitigation measures will not protect residents from harmful toxic gasses. Public health experts believe that society will eventually have to pay for the long-term health impacts of housing people near Los Angeles’ heavily congested freeways due to potential cognitive decline and strokes caused by exposure to particulates.
This is not just an issue facing the greater Los Angeles region. Low-income, minorities across the United States face environmental injustice, especially when in comes to air pollution. Low-income residents of New York City face disproportionate rates of asthma, the most frequent cause for school absence in the city. Residents of West Oakland, a predominantly low-income, minority community face disproportionate levels of air pollution, as well.
A study published in 2017 correlates race and poverty status to distribution of particulate matter emissions. This research found that Black Americans are exposed to air pollutants at a rate that is 21 percent higher than the national average, yet their consumption choices contribute 23 percent less emissions than the national average. The statistics are similar for Hispanic Americans, as well. Hispanics are exposed to 12 percent higher levels of particulates than the national average, but are responsible for 31 percent lower emissions. However, Whites experience exposure that is 7 percent lower than the national average while their consumption contributes to emissions at a rate that is 12 percent higher than the national average.
Considering that Hispanics and Blacks have the lowest median household income in Los Angeles, disregarding years of environmental health research to provide affordable housing units is certainly an environmental justice issue. Officials making these decisions must realize that the individuals living in these subsidized housing developments are suffering the consequences of an issue that they are largely not contributing to.
Low-income individuals rely on developers and local government officials to make educated and responsible decisions when it comes to affordable housing developments. While a fast and easy solution to Southern California’s housing crisis may not exist, surely we can do better than to maintain the status quo of economic and environmental inequality in Los Angeles.
*The title of this post comes from the poem “The Breathing Lesson” by David Wagoner.