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Land use, housing disparities in neighborhoods worsen climate inequality, says Georgetown professor

The University of Houston Law Center 2023 J.D. and LL.M. graduates celebrate commencement at the Fertitta Center on May 13.

Sheila Foster, the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Urban Law and Policy and Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University

July 03, 2023 – Sheila Foster, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown explored the topic of climate justice at a recent webinar hosted by the Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center at the University of Houston Law Center.

Climate justice investigates the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income households and communities of color around the world. Foster examined the connection between historic land injustices, current climate risks, and future land use patterns (including migration choices).

“This talk brings together the intersection of my work around inequality, cities, urban areas, and the climate more generally,” said Foster.

In her advisory role on New York City’s Panel on Climate Change, Foster worked on a report that identified ways to incorporate climate equity in neighborhoods that are particularly vulnerable. One of the measurements used in the report was social vulnerability mapping, which looks at the potential negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health.

“It’s useful as a way to target adaptation and funds,” explained Foster. “[But] in order to really understand climate inequity, we need a fuller more robust framework [that]…will set out the way that past land uses affect current land use patterns, climate risk, and future land use.” Looking at past land use, Foster shared how zoning has been used to shape who lives where and determine the physical aspects of land use. In one study, she noted that redlined neighborhoods — the historical practice of outlining areas with sizable Black populations in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders — displayed the greatest differences in land surface temperatures.

“The study reveals that historical housing policies likely are responsible for disproportionate exposure to warmer temps, less of a tree canopy, and more impervious land,” said Foster. Climate justice also examines where subsidized housing developments are located, often in hurricane storm surge zones or flood plains.

“Recent studies have shown that about 9% are in 100 or 500-year flood plains,” said Foster. “That number will triple by 2050.”

New York City is at the top of that list explains Foster with 17% of affordable housing in the 100-year flood plain and that number is expected to rise to 26%.

One consequence of low-income housing in storm surge zones or low-lying areas relates to buyouts from state and federal governments.

“People of color are more likely to take a buyout, but it can be a means to dismantle neighborhoods seen as blighted and buyouts can disrupt generational wealth,” said Foster. The buyout amount she says is often not enough for the homeowner to find an equivalent home in the area.

While reports like the one Foster created for New York’s Panel on Climate Change are not legally binding, she explained her report is designed to inform future decisions made by the city.

Title VI has been used in legal cases around climate justice as it prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds. In a recent settlement in Houston, the U.S. Justice Department found that the city discriminated against Black and Latino residents in northeast Houston by not enforcing fines around illegal dumping. Foster said it was a robust enforcement of Title VI, and Houston is committing to equitably cleaning the entire city and ensuring illegal dumping is prosecuted no matter where it occurs. The event is part of a three-year Curie Energy Transition Governance and Law Project between the University of Houston EENR Center and the Universite de Lyon III.

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