Outlier Media’s The Dig has published this story in partnership with Planet Detroit.

Nora Rodriguez lives in Southwest Detroit, where she is caring for her mother. Rodriguez has never seriously considered leaving the area despite her own health issues. She is a community organizer and outreach worker with two local nonprofits. Photo by NICK HAGEN

Nora Rodriguez has lived three places in her life, all in Southwest Detroit. Nearly everything she needs is nearby—her job, friends and family, grocery stores, restaurants and more. But every house is also close to factories or highways. Where she lives now, on Dragoon Street, is just blocks from I-75 and a frequent route for truck traffic. It’s also less than two miles from Zug Island, an industrial site on the Detroit River where a U.S. Steel plant operates, and just shy of three miles from a Marathon Oil refinery.

Rodriguez has had asthma since she was a kid.

“It’s not the worst asthma in the world, but my lungs are weak,” said Rodriguez, who’s in her 20s. “It’s triggered by pollutants, dust and pollen. I get sick a lot easier, and when I do get sick, it’s worse.”

Rodriguez knows it’s not just the air outside that makes her asthma worse, but also the air inside her house, which she says is more than 100 years old. 

“I know a lot of it has to do with where I live,” said Rodriguez, who has never been a smoker and uses an inhaler. 

She describes her home as “drafty” and in need of better insulation, new windows, a new roof and mold remediation. These issues make it easier for the triggers of her asthma to get inside the house and increase her utility bills. 

Detroit ranks as the 12th worst city in the country for particulate pollution. Not coincidentally, it has the highest childhood asthma rate of any major U.S. city. Detroit also has the highest chronic absenteeism rate in the country. (Asthma is the No. 1 cause of missed school days.)

There has long been an understanding that it is unhealthy to live close to pollution or environmental toxins. The two pillars of the environmental justice movement have been to draw attention to how often this pollution is concentrated in or near poor communities of color and to find ways to change that. Now, there is increasing energy around the idea that it is not only where a house is situated that makes people vulnerable to environmental impacts but the condition of the house, too. 

Housing itself has become an environmental justice issue.

“These are historically disregarded and disinvested communities where, for over 100 years, we have robbed families of their fundamental abilities to compete, to learn and to earn,” said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. “In city after city, including Detroit, we lowered the bar on housing code enforcement, and allowed our housing to deteriorate and become toxic.”

Poor housing quality contributes to several environmental exposures. Each has its own unique sources and health risks. 

“Detroit has housing conditions with mold, mildew, poor indoor air quality, poorly weatherized housing, extreme heat and cold and moisture that causes lead-based paint to chip,” Norton said. “We basically have an effective car wreck—a critical mass of unhealthy housing.”

Rodriguez has never seriously considered leaving Southwest Detroit despite her health issues. She is a community organizer and outreach worker with two local nonprofits. She also lives with and is caring for her aging mother. 

In Detroit, 80% of the housing stock is at least 60 years old. Given that age, and the fact that 35% of Detroit residents living below the poverty line, thousands of homes are in desperate need of maintenance. A 2021 report from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions found that bringing every home in the metro area up to a healthy standard could cost $2 billion. 

In surveys about how Detroit should spend its $826 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, home repair was residents’ top issue. The Mayor’s Office answered back by announcing $30 million in home repair grants for seniors and disabled homeowners. But the program will only make a dent in the need. The first phase of the program aims to pay for around 1,500 roof replacements. The U-M report on home repair estimated that there were at least 24,000 homes in a moderate or severe condition. 

The nexus between housing and environmental justice in Detroit

There has long been an understanding that it is unhealthy to live close to pollution or environmental toxins. The environmental justice movement aims to draw attention to how often pollution is concentrated in or near poor communities of color and to find ways to change that. Photo by NICK HAGEN

Describing a health risk as environmental instantly brings to mind images of outside air pollution from highways, flooding on streets and toxins from hulking industrial plants ending up in rivers and water. But because people spend more than 90% of their time indoors, the trickle-down effects of pollution and climate change in buildings and homes are the environmental impacts most likely to be felt day-to-day. 

And the people living in those old homes in vulnerable areas are overwhelmingly people of color. In the U.S., Black people are exposed to 38% more polluted air than white people and are 75% more likely to live near sources of pollution. In Detroit’s most polluted ZIP code, 48217, near where Rodriguez lives, 71% of the population is Black.

Old housing and lingering lead

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause learning delays and behavioral problems. Lead poisoning disproportionately impacts Black children in low-income families.

Michigan has one of the highest numbers of lead pipes per capita in the country, with Detroit bringing up the average. The city estimates it has more than 80,000 lead service lines—about 11,872 miles per 100,000 people. 

But the bulk of lead poisoning comes not from pipes but from paint. 

“Lead in water contributes somewhere between 10-20% of lead poisoning,” Norton said. 

Congress outlawed the use of lead in residential paint in 1978, but as the vast majority of homes in Detroit were built before that date, most homes are at risk of containing a lead hazard. 

Widespread real estate speculation and housing demolition are realities in Detroit neighborhoods that drive lead poisoning. University of Michigan research tied elevated blood lead levels in children to homes purchased at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction. 

For years, real estate investors could purchase properties in bulk at the foreclosure auction for cheap. Some never paid taxes and simply lost their initial purchase price if they couldn’t sell it. Others, like notorious landlord Michael Kelly, initiate land contracts that are risky for the buyers, who can be evicted after missing a single payment. In both cases, the owners let the homes deteriorate. 

Speculators and disinvestment more generally have left widespread blight throughout the city. Demolition of blighted properties is a necessity but the amount of lead paint in those old structures makes the demos dangerous for surrounding homes. A 2017 Detroit Health Department task force found elevated blood lead levels in children near demolition sites. 

But the city has only expanded on its demolition program since then, thanks to a $250 million bond  funding another 8,000 home demolitions. The city said it has improved its protocols around demolition through better outreach and by providing lead testing and cleaning kits. 

As part of the city’s Rental Registry Ordinance, landlords must obtain a lead clearance certificate proving there is no lead hazard in the home. But as of August, just 5,271 of at least 60,000 rental units had received a clearance, in part because abatement is so expensive. 

“It’s an emergency,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a co-author of the report on elevated blood levels and the auction. “It requires unprecedented resources. Every day that policymakers wait to act or underinvest in this issue the problem only gets more severe and more expensive—and the more people are harmed.”

Lead remediation is expensive but the costs of lead exposure are greater. Every $1 spent on lead paint control could result in up to $221 in returns. 

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would invest $45 billion in the removal of all lead pipes nationwide, but Norton believes the money may be better spent on addressing lead-based paint. 

“It’s a real missed opportunity,” she said. 

Preparing for uneven impact of climate change

Climate change is accelerating the deterioration of Detroit homes that are already in need of major repairs.

As this summer’s extreme rain events made clear, Detroiters are especially vulnerable to flooding. Approximately 40,757 properties—or about 15% of all Detroit households—are at risk of flooding. That number will continue to rise as intense rainfall, or what the city has taken to calling “rain events,” increases. 

The problem is as related to infrastructure as weather. The aging and combined sewer systems in Detroit convey sewage and rainfall in the same pipes, which were not built to handle the kinds of intense rainfall expected to become more frequent with climate change. Communities of color have to deal with the impacts of the older systems which can include illness from waterborne disease and lingering dampness can lead to mold infestation. 

It may cost as much as $1.7 billion to address the region’s flooding-related infrastructure issues. So far, about 40,000 people have applied for about  $118 million in FEMA relief for this summer’s flooding alone. 

Energy and water utility burdens

Nora Rodriguez of Southwest Detroit describes the home where she lives with her mother as “drafty” and in need of better insulation, new windows, a new roof and mold remediation. These issues make it easier for the triggers of her asthma to get inside the house and increase her utility bills. Photo by NICK HAGEN

A home needs to be able to act as a buffer against the environment for the people that live inside. 

But heating and cooling homes is getting more expensive as the weather gets more extreme. Detroiters pay more for water and electric utilities than their suburban neighbors and bear more of the harm caused by producing electricity for others. 

“Detroiters are extremely vulnerable to [heat waves], in part because people don’t have insulated homes and aren’t able to keep things out and in part because they don’t have reliable access to air conditioning,” said Justin Schott, project manager of the Energy Equity Project at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “They don’t have any protection during cooling seasons.”

A Health Impact Assessment conducted by University of Michigan researchers in 2020 found that DTE Energy’s coal-fired power plants are disproportionately in communities of color. The air pollution the plants generate causes more harm to low- to moderate-income neighborhoods of color. 

Spending more than 6% of total income on utilities is considered a “high-energy burden” by experts. In metro Detroit, 43% of Black households and 38% of Hispanic households are spending more than they can afford on their utilities. 

The breadth of the housing quality problem can seem overwhelming to tackle. But because of its ubiquity in poor cities of color, it may be the most straightforward way to address environmental justice.

“This is a clear opportunity to increase racial equity and close the racial gap,” Norton said. “Until we fix that and these things, we are not taking concrete steps to actually close health and racial disparities. And if we cannot get to that ground truth, then we’ve got problems.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221. Reach NINA IGNACZAK, editor of Planet Detroit, at nina@planetdetroit.org.