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Toxic Threat in Federally Assisted Housing

New study reveals widespread exposure to Superfund sites, decades of environmental racism.

For years, children had played in their yards and even grew vegetables at a new elementary school across from federally assisted public housing in East Chicago. The first their families knew they were living on toxic land? When officials told them they had to leave immediately in 2016.

The families’ peril was no exception. More than 70 percent of U.S. Superfund sites are located a mile or less from federally assisted housing projects, according to an in-depth, first-of-its-kind research study, showing how decades of environmental racism have systematically endangered thousands of Americans.

The report -- entitled “Poisonous Homes: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Federally Assisted Housing” -- found that the U.S. government has been aware of toxic contamination at or near these public housing sites for years without taking action.

The research was conducted by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, Earthjustice, the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic and Columbia University’s Health Justice Advocacy Clinic.

Nationally, many residents of federally assisted housing are people of color, placed in harm’s way due to discriminatory housing policies. Despite the dangers, the federal government still is moving people into potentially hazardous housing, without notifying them. The report spotlights examples across the country, including in East Chicago and Evansville, Indiana.

The authors cite a lack of legal protections for the residents due to a complex confluence of housing and environmental laws. They also relay stories of community activism and recommendations on how to address the dangers.

Read a summary of the report’s findings here and the full report here.

The study was funded by the Joyce Foundation as part of its nonpartisan support for research, public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region. The Foundation addresses lead exposure issues as part of its environment and clean-water programs.