Tag Archives: Built Environment

Building Hope with Community: The Right to Affordable Housing in South Central Los Angeles

This week’s blog is a repost from Esperanza Community Housing. The post discusses the right to affordable housing in South Central Los Angeles and preliminary findings from HIP’s HIA on a development in the area

The narrative of South Los Angeles has been one of serial displacement. Community residents, primarily low-income people of color, have systematically been priced out of our homes and neighborhoods to make way for industry and for gentrifying trends. We’ve faced higher rents, skyrocketing property values, and a cost of living that has become unmanageable — even when working multiple jobs. This combination is a result of the city’s poor planning and spot-zoning policies, and the real estate development industry’s unchecked pursuit of profits without consideration of the human cost of housing, health, and security. This has put not only our homes at risk, but also our health, our identities, our livelihoods, and our environment. Read more…

Lead Poisoning and Crime: Why the Pipeline to Prison is Running Dry

In my previous post (Does less lead mean less crime?), I wrote about research showing how the rise and decline in environmental lead levels could account for the bulk of crime trends in the US since the 1940s. (In fact, lead exposure is correlated to crime as far back as the 1870s.)

At the end of my post, I asked about the seemingly growing gap between lead exposure levels and crime rates since the early 2000s. Rick Nevin, a Senior Economist with ICF International and one of the researchers at the forefront of investigating the lead/crime connection, reached out to HIP to address that question and write a guest blog providing more information about his research, how lead exposure is driving the aging of the U.S. prison population, and the implications that may have for the criminal justice system.

At HIP, we are passionate about understanding the complex ways that social, political and economic factors interact with the environment to impact health outcomes, and the relationship between lead exposure and crime is a perfect example of this dynamic. We thank Rick for contributing his time to help us learn more about this phenomenon and sharing his professional and personal perspective on the topic.

Darío Maciel


Rick Nevin is a Senior Economist with ICF International. More information about his research can be found at www.ricknevin.com.

I want to thank HIP for this opportunity to present more evidence linking lead exposure and crime trends. The ongoing strength of this relationship has important implications for debates over the death penalty, criminal justice racial disparities, and mass incarceration.

I knew very little about the effects of lead poisoning, or crime data, when I began work in 1994 on an Economic Analysis of lead paint hazard regulations. My initial bias was to doubt that the costs of that regulation were justified by benefits. I was mistaken: costs were far lower than benefits associated with how lead exposure affects IQ, education, and lifetime earnings. My client also mentioned that we didn’t even count crime prevention benefits, suggested by recent research. I was aware of studies showing a strong relationship between lead exposure and leaded gasoline use in the past, and I wondered if there might be a relationship between crime trends and earlier gas lead trends. What I found was a stunning visual fit with a 23-year lag, consistent with early childhood lead exposure affecting the peak age of violent offending.

In 2000, Environmental Research published my first peer-reviewed study on lead exposure and USA violent crime trends. The same journal published my 2007 study on lead exposure and international crime trends, and my 2009 study on lead exposure and education trends. My 2009 study reported related shifts in incarceration rates by age and race, and showed that the lead research literature demonstrates all of the accepted indicators of causation: lead exposure is not just correlated with subsequent trends in intellectual disability, education achievement, and crime rates – lead poisoning caused those societal trends.

I have acknowledged that the strength and consistency of societal impacts from preschool lead exposure sounds like a bad science fiction plot. As an economist, starting out with a healthy skepticism about the costs of lead poisoning prevention, I am also an unlikely advocate for this improbable plotline, but the evidence is overwhelming.

Historic Trends: Dangerous Dust, Delinquency, and Crime
The most pervasive cause of lead poisoning is lead in dust, contaminated by lead in paint and air lead fallout. Lead in dust is ingested via normal hand-to-mouth activity as children learn to crawl. The bloodstream carries lead to the brain where it causes neurodevelopmental damage. Behavioral impacts are most evident after affected children reach adolescence, during another period of rapid brain growth.

Variations in biological vulnerability and lead exposure severity result in different outcomes for individual children, but higher risks of delinquent behavior among youths with preschool lead exposure have been documented by Denno, Needleman, Dietrich, and Wright. My study in 2000 found that homicide rates from 1900-1998 were also largely explained by the use of lead in paint and gasoline from 1879-1977.

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The use of lead paint fell over the 1920s and 1930s but we didn’t ban lead paint until 1978. From the 1940s through the 1980s, average blood lead tracked trends in air lead fallout from leaded gasoline, as lead paint exposure changed slowly with changes in the housing stock. Many children in the 1960s had additive exposure to city air lead and lead paint in old homes, sending “large numbers of comatose and convulsing children” to inner city hospitals. Lead in dust from lead paint in older homes is the main cause of USA preschool lead exposure today.

My 2000 study also found that 90% of violent crime rate variation from the early-1960s to 1998 was explained by earlier lead exposure trends. The time-lag relationship between lead exposure and violent crime has now been confirmed in state and city crime studies. My 2007 study found that lead exposure also explained most of the violent and property crime rate variation across decades in the USA, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Finland, Italy, West Germany, and New Zealand. The best-fit lag was 18 years for property crime and 23 years for violent crime, consistent with peak ages of offending. In seminal reporting on this issue, Kevin Drum calls this “an astonishing body of evidence. We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level.”

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Ongoing Trends: Shifts in Arrests and Incarceration by Age

The crime decline in recent years has been slower than the earlier decline in blood lead because steep arrest rate declines for youths have been partially offset by rising arrest rates for older adults. From 1991-2013, arrest rates for children under 10 fell by 83% for violent crime and 94% for property crime, and juvenile (under 18) arrest rates fell by 63% for violent crime and 71% for property crime, as arrest rates for adults ages 50 and older increased. In absolute terms, the violent crime arrest rate for juveniles was twice the rate for ages 35-49 in 1991, but the juvenile rate was lower in 2013. The property crime arrest rate for children under 10 was about the same as the rate for ages 35-49 in 1991, but the 2013 rate for children under 10 was just 7% of the 2013 rate for ages 35-49. This shift in arrest rates shows ongoing massive declines for youths born across decades of declining lead exposure, smaller arrest rate declines for adults born in the early years of the lead exposure decline, and increasing arrest rates for older adults born when lead exposure was increasing.

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The shift in arrest rates has caused a corresponding shift in prison incarceration. From 2001 to 2013, incarceration rates fell by 59% for males ages 18-19 and 30% for males in their 20s, but increased 33% for men ages 40-44 and surged 86% for men ages 45-54. Proponents of “tough-on-crime” sentencing credit prison incapacitation for much of the USA crime decline – “when a criminal is locked up, he’s not ransacking your house” – but the largest arrest rate declines have occurred among younger age groups with large contemporaneous incarceration rate declines.

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From 2000 to 2013, there was also a 69% decline in the number of juveniles in adult prisons, and a 46% decline in juveniles placed on probation. Juveniles in local jails also fell 40% from 2000-2014, and the number of youths in residential placement fell 50% from 1999-2013 (juvenile offenders account for 90% of youths in residential placement). The largest percentage declines were recorded by the youngest juveniles, including an 82% decline in the number of children under age 13 in residential placement. Mendel reports that lead exposure can explain juvenile justice trends that cannot be explained by reform efforts or other crime theories.

Ongoing declines in juvenile arrests reflect blood lead declines over the 1990s (the birth years of juveniles in 2007-2013). The percent of children ages 1-5 with blood lead above 5 mcg/dl fell from 31.4% in 1988-1991 to 2.6% in 2007-2010, due to new homes without lead paint, demolition and renovation of old housing, and implementation of the Residential Lead Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 (including regulations that were the subject of my 1990s analysis).

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Future Trends: A Road Less Traveled
Two decades after I first saw the correlation between gasoline lead and crime, the research on this issue is still ignored in many news stories related to lead poisoning. Jim Haner, who wrote extensively about lead poisoning for the Baltimore Sun, was the only reporter who wrote about my study in 2000, just a few years after Freddie Gray was poisoned by lead paint in Baltimore, steering his life toward academic and crime problems shared by many lead poisoning victims. In 2006, John Pekkanen wrote a brilliant story about this issue for Washingtonian magazine, but we are still waiting for an answer to the question posed by his story title: “Why Is Lead Still Poisoning Our Children?”

The “pipeline” to prison has alliterative appeal, but it is a misnomer. There is a road to prison, with signs that some offenders fail to heed. A 1991 prisoner survey found that 80% of inmates had served prior sentences to probation or incarceration, including 40% with prior sentences as juveniles. Another analysis found that prisoners released in 1994 after serving sentences for nonviolent offenses had criminal records that included, on average, 9.3 prior arrests and 4.1 prior convictions. We can disagree about many criminal justice issues, but one thing we know for certain is that very few prisoners made it to age 20 before their first felony arrest. The steep declines in juvenile arrest rates and the age 18-19 incarceration rate ensure that the road to prison will be a road less traveled for many years to come.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty and life without parole are excessive sanctions for crimes committed by juveniles, citing evidence that “adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance”. We now know that preschool lead exposure impairs those specific types of brain development linked to impulse control, planning, and risk avoidance; other research links those specific types of brain impairment to homicide offending; murder trends by city size have tracked lead exposure trends from 1900-2013; and murder arrest rates by race and racial disparities in death penalty sentences have tracked racial disparities in lead poisoning.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, African-Americans were disproportionately exposed to city air lead and lead paint hazards in substandard urban housing. The percent of black preschool children with blood lead over 30 mcg/dl fell from 12% in the late-1970s to less than 1% in the late-1980s, and the black juvenile murder arrest rate then fell by 83% from 1993 to 2003. Black children are still disproportionately exposed to lead contaminated dust in older homes, but the racial disparity in elevated blood lead has narrowed from the late-1980s through 2010.

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There is a stale statistic that one in three black boys will end up in prison at some time in their life, based on an old analysis that assumed arrest and incarceration rates by age and race would remain unchanged at 1991 levels. Criminologists in the early-1990s used that same assumption to forecast a rising violent crime rate, largely based on projected demographic growth in the black juvenile population. Those forecasts were wildly wrong because the assumption about stable black juvenile offending was wrong. From 1991 to 2012, black juvenile arrest rates fell by 59% for violent crimes, 55% for property crimes, and 61% for weapons offenses. From 2001 to 2013, the incarceration rate for black males fell by 43% for ages 25-29, 50% for ages 20-24, and 62% for ages 18-19.

Lead exposure impacts on crime are as global as the rise and fall of leaded gasoline use. My 2007 study found that 80% to 90% of burglary rate variations in Britain, Canada, and Australia through 2002 were explained by earlier trends in lead exposure. The burglary rates in all three nations fell by more than 50% from 2002-2014, tracking earlier lead exposure trends. The title of a 2013 story in The Economist asked: “Where have all the burglars gone?” Now you know. In the future, the road to prison will be less traveled all over the world.

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Gentrification: A Public Health Crisis

Spike Lee calls it “the Christopher Columbus Syndrome– the “discovery” of lower-income, racially diverse urban neighborhoods by a richer, whiter influx of new residents who drive up the cost of housing, squeezing out working-class folks, and transforming the neighborhood. The debate over gentrification rages among academics, cultural critics, and of course, to those of us who find ourselves living it. (I’m a twenty-something who has recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, gentrification ground zero.)

But what about the perspective of the people being displaced? In a new report, Causa Justa :: Just Cause provides much-needed insight from the perspective of the residents of Bay Area communities most heavily impacted, providing vivid evidence that gentrification is not just an amoral process of change but a public health problem – as sociologist John Joe Hickman says, “the most pressing issue as we become an urban world.”

The report – Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area – defines gentrification as

a profit driven race and class remake of urban, working class communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment. This process is driven by private developers, landlords, business, and corporations and supported by the state, through both policies that facilitate the process and funding in the form of public subsidies.  Gentrification happens in areas where commercial and residential land is cheap relative to other areas in the city and region, and where the potential to turn a profit, either through re-purposing existing structures or building new ones is great.

The pace and scope of gentrification in the Bay Area is alarming. Causa Justa :: Just Cause’s analysis shows that there are no remaining neighborhoods in Oakland that are not already gentrifying, susceptible to gentrifying, or already wealthy. Working-class communities of color in San Francisco are in a similar position, especially in the Mission district, where no-fault evictions are at the highest levels since the dot-com boom of the early 2000s.

Displacement has been linked with a myriad of stressors, including financial hardship, disruption of social networks, loss of access to health services, even homelessness.  Stress, in turn, is linked with poorer health outcomes. The fact that gentrification literally makes residents of displaced communities sick is not an inevitable effect of morally neutral market forces, but a fundamental injustice.

But gentrification is not inevitable. The report provides specific policy recommendations that can prevent displacement from beginning and halt its progress in areas where it is already occurring.  Health impact assessments can help local governments and public health officials to promote economic development without displacement. Causa Justa :: Just Cause says the key factor in turning the tide is honoring the voices of communities as partners in development and planning processes that affect their future.  Only then will current residents stand to benefit from the renewed wave of investment coming to the neighborhoods they call home.

Public Housing, Public Health and the Public Interest

This blog post was originally published at The Pump Handle on February 18, 2014.

The quality of public housing is a key determinant of health among low-income populations. Substandard housing – where mold, pest infestations, fire hazards, or other health risks are present – is associated with a wide range of health problems, including respiratory infections, asthma, lead poisoning and mental health issues. Nor is illness the only concern: Each year millions of Americans are injured, and tens of thousands killed, by accidents in and around their homes that may be linked to housing conditions. Access to safe and affordable housing is not just an economic issue, but a major public health issue.

However, much of the public housing in the United States is in disrepair – unhealthy, unsafe, even uninhabitable. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been working for many years to fix the problem, but with the cost of bringing public housing up to standard estimated at more than $20 billion nationwide, it’s a daunting task. (It doesn’t help that HUD’s budget, especially the portion for maintenance and renovation, which was inadequate in the first place, has been repeatedly slashed for the last 30 years.)

In 2011, Congress passed the Rental Assistance Demonstration Project (RAD), a pilot program providing for the purchase and renovation of some 60,000 units of public housing by nonprofit organizations or private entities. A linchpin of the program is the requirement that for 15 to 20 years the new owners must continue to make the housing available to the same populations that currently live there.

Public housing has received increasing attention from the field of Health Impact Assessment, which evaluates multiple health impacts of proposed policies and projects. HIAs have been conducted on housing inspections in Ohio and in Marin County, Calif., and on the HOPE VI program in San Francisco. Currently the Health Impact Project is in the midst of an HIA done in collaboration with HUD about changing the rules for elderly and disabled public housing.  In 2011, Human Impact Partners released an HIA of the RAD proposal.

Recently San Francisco, where soaring rents are forcing increasing numbers of low- and medium-income renters out of the city, was awarded a grant from HUD to rehabilitate its public housing stock – enough to renovate three-fourths of all units. In order to qualify for renovation, the units must be sold to private or nonprofit owners who get tax credits. The units then become Section 8 voucher properties (where low-income tenants pay 30 percent of their rent and vouchers make up the difference to the landlord), and the owners sign a contract to keep them as such for 20 years.

Human Impact Partners’ HIA of the RAD project predicted that the program would lead to improved housing quality, decreased stress among residents and decreased crime around renovated housing. But the devil is in the details. We also predicted that RAD, if not done well, could lead to poor health due to potential evictions, displacement, lack of authentic resident inclusion in decision-making, and stress from not knowing whether one’s housing is secure over the long term.

Here’s what we believe San Francisco must do to avoid those potential negative impacts:

  • Ensure that clear standards are set for protecting residents from evictions, displacement and changes in affordability.
  • Require new management to have a long-term plan to preserve the housing stock.
  • Create funding for services, support and protections for those typically hard to house, such as the elderly, large families, people with disabilities, those who have been arrested or incarcerated, and those with poor credit histories.
  • Create an oversight committee of leaders of resident organizations in the housing sites, housing advocates and elected officials.
  • Develop metrics that truly measure determinants of health to understand how RAD affects health over time.

Affordable housing is not only vital for low-income populations, but to the community at large. We’ve seen what happened when the mental health system that helped those who could not live without support was dismantled. Homelessness and incarceration shot through the roof. We don’t want that to happen if public housing goes away. The bottom line: We just aren’t sure that the RAD program offers enough protection to ensure that private interests wouldn’t eventually win out over the public good.

Think about it: You’re a developer who can afford to buy hundreds of units of public housing, get tax breaks from the government for improving them.  All you have to do is agree that for 15 to 20 years you will keep them available for low-income populations.  After that, you must consider keeping them available, but you’re free to sell them at market rates. In markets such as San Francisco, where even modest units have no shortage of takers eager to rent or buy at prices unthinkable until recently, would you think about public health, or your own opportunity to profit?

Policymakers must consider ways to require or incentivize the continued availability of affordable units. Policymakers who want to consider health and quality of life for their most vulnerable residents must assure that safe, well-maintained housing continues to be available for low-income residents.