JoCo on the Go Podcast: History of housing and current impacts on public health

On JoCo on the Go, episode #126, hear about a new Johnson County Museum exhibit that highlights a decades old issue that continues to impact our community today. Learn about the historic practice of redlining – deeming groups of people a poor financial risk for home loans and limiting those in urban areas from gaining access to newer suburban neighborhoods with access to greater resources. Find out how this practice has had generational impacts to public health. We’ll tell you how you can get involved to make Johnson County a more diverse and culturally rich place to live.


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Time Subject
00:27 Introduction
01:21 What is Redlining?
04:45 How the exhibit was built
08:05 The continued impact of Redlining today
11:08 Strategies to deal with housing inequity
12:02 Housing is a public health issue
14:29 The legacy of Redlining
17:01 How to help with housing issues in your community


Theresa Freed 00:00

Johnson County Museum is opening a new exhibit that highlights a decades-old issue that continues to have impacts today. On this episode hear from those who worked on the exhibit, and those who continue to address public health's connection to housing.

Announcer 00:14

Whether you live in or just love Johnson County Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed 00:27

Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Redlining is a term that has historical significance for Johnson County. And by bringing attention to it today. We can see the lasting impacts that crossover into public health. Here to talk more about that we have with us two Johnson County experts. If you both want to introduce yourself, we'll go ahead and start with Megan.

Megan Foreman 00:50

Good morning. My name is Megan Foreman. I'm with the Department of Health and Environment here in Johnson County. I'm a program manager and have worked with Andrew for a while on this issue of housing.

Andrew Gustafson 01:03

Good morning. I'm Andrew Gustafson. I'm the curator of interpretation at the Johnson County Museum. And that's a fancy way of saying I help people access history. And one of the main ways I do that is putting together, researching and installing and working with our team here to create special exhibitions like the one we're going to talk about today.

Theresa Freed 01:21

Alright, and so we'll just dig right into the topic. And Andrew, just tell us a little bit about what the term redlining means. And then tell us about the exhibit.

Andrew Gustafson 01:30

Sure, yeah. So, um, redlining is the technical definition is the systematic disinvestment of some neighborhoods and populations in favor others and often on the basis of race, or skin color. And so systematic disinvestment, that meant that private practices of real estate industry, banking, insurance, were doing things, and eventually the federal government created a policy around this. And so private individuals and a government choosing which populations and neighborhoods to invest in in which to disinvest, to not invest in. And so this is a national history. Kansas City and Johnson County are absolutely part of that a lot of times people think Johnson County was a redlined area, because they think that African Americans weren't welcomed there. And so red lines kept out. But in fact, redlining was about keeping populations in, in the city center. So much of Johnson County would have been a green line area that was open to white investment populations moving to the new suburbs. And that was all supported by the federal government through the Federal Housing Administration, the FHA program that's still around looks very different today than it did in the 1930s when it was created. But the federal government with the help of private industry created protocols and procedures for how to invest in, how to encourage home purchases. And that included not investing in populations that were black or other minority populations, often in city centers. So that's the background on redlining. The exhibit takes a huge look, it's a very extensive narrative that the exhibit tells the exhibit Redlined: City Suburbs and Segregation looks at the foundations of this to start with going back to the Civil War, just after the Civil War in the 1860s, all the way up through the Great Depression, how cities were changing how populations and cities were changing. There was a movement called the Progressive Movement, people wanting to order society, create systems and things. And that was really affecting how our cityscape looked. We looked at the Great Depression era, then people, their income was disappearing, their banks were closing, the economic situation was very bad. And so people weren't purchasing houses. So the federal government and private industry got together to encourage that through the FHA through other government-sponsored programs. And that's when the idea of redlining comes about. We also look at, postwar, how that expands through the FHA through the VA, Veterans Administration, veterans returning from war are offered good terms for purchasing homes and getting mortgages and things. And the VA uses the FHA model of not working with black homebuyers, and other minority homebuyers. And then we look at efforts in the civil rights era through the Civil Rights Movement to undo this and often failed. They target those efforts, targeted specific things, but the system that was put in place remained. And then the final part of the exhibit is looking at modern legacies, things that are still impacting our communities, because that system was never deconstructed, that system that supported redlining

Theresa Freed 04:45

I know a tremendous amount of work went into creating this exhibit. So can you talk a little bit about that? I know you talked about the research that went into it, but just the, you know, the individuals who worked on this and the extent of that and then also If you want to talk a little bit about how this isn't just, you know, some pictures on a wall with some words, it's interactive.

Andrew Gustafson 05:06

Yeah, absolutely. So our exhibit creation process is pretty extensive. We start usually with either a topic or an idea and do research around that. I researched for about a year on the topic of redlining and its legacies, created an 85-page research paper with footnotes. So I looked at over 150 books and dissertations, scholarly articles, literally 1000s of pages of primary source documents that were in regional and national archives. And we worked together as a team to create a narrative story for the exhibit, a script. And then that gets paired with images. So there's over 120 images, and there are 10 display cases with objects that help tell this story. And it covers more than 2000 square feet of wall space, which is a whole new way for me to think about the work that I do. So it's a large exhibit, and it's a comprehensive story. And to help tell that story to punctuate it, there are large scale visualizations of maps that were created. Lists of communities that were restricted, we have newspaper articles, written by, you know, local, African American newspapers, the KC Call, for example, we also have a touchscreen exhibit that that looks at modern maps, compares them to historical maps, and a video: we had interviews with cultural leaders in previously redlined communities to talk about what this looked like on the ground in their communities, and what it still looks like. So, all of those things, plus a feedback wall, there's an art exhibit, I almost forgot about the art exhibit, we worked with the African American Artists Collective in Kansas City, to bring art on the topic of redlining, into this exhibit to hear from black voices, from artists. And also, to provide another way to process what you're seeing and learning in this exhibit. Art has the power to connect us in ways that words sometimes fail. And so it's a really refreshing thing to go into these art books and see these visualizations, these experiences in different media. It's very neat.

Theresa Freed 07:12

And so what is your hope, when people come to visit the exhibit? What are you hoping they walk away with?

Andrew Gustafson 07:17

So I hope that they learn something new, I think that there's misconceptions around the topic of redlining, and there's also just a real lack of knowledge, you know, I, I have a master's in history. And I didn't know most of this history, until I started working for this museum. And then certainly, I've learned more through creating this exhibit. This isn't something that is necessarily taught in schools, or were taught to the extent maybe it should be, and so you know, learning something new. And then thinking about ways to get involved and taking those lessons forward and helping a large the large community that we live in, you know, not just our neighborhood or our neighbors, but the larger region or metro that we inhabit, and how to connect back to that and make meaningful change if we want.

Theresa Freed 08:05

And, you know, a big piece of this, of course, is housing. And so housing has implications today in our current environment, and that historical context kind of continues to today and what we're looking at in terms of housing, so Megan, can you talk about some of the work the Department of Health and Environment is doing to evaluate that?

Megan Foreman 08:25

Sure, you know, housing is a social determinant of health. And that's kind of how we talk about it. That's this concept where the place where someone lives, learns, works and plays, drives their health outcomes in ways that really the doctor's office or the health care system can't. So, we know that safe, stable and affordable housing, or the lack of, is a major underpinning of health and all of this. I mean, it's inextricably tied to history when whole races of people are denied the ability to live in an area where they feel safe, where there's green spaces and sidewalks where their kids can play and build community, when they don't have access maybe to good public schools. And ultimately, then that opportunity to build generational wealth, something that where they have assets, and they can kind of build something that they can pass down to the next generation to maybe use for education or their own homeownership, something like that. We really do see these impacts for generations. I mean, and the topic of this podcast isn't to go into disparities. But you know, this unequalness between races and ethnic groups is visible across a whole host of systems. We see it in health care, but it's also you know, continued in homeownership educational attainment, wages, health, all of those things. So, um, you know, one of the the big pieces that I think is important to highlight right now, not only do we have this historical context that we're working with, but you know, just in the last 10 years in Johnson County, housing costs have exploded, they're up 26 percent for renters and 22 percent for homeowners without a mortgage. And another thing that that this cost explosion has done is really shrink in half, about, the number of houses that are available underneath that kind of $250,000 price bracket. And so you really then see that there's not a lot of housing stock for maybe young families or older people who are looking to downsize or, you know, people who have salaries in line with teachers, police officers, nurses, and there's a lot of communities that are really kind of asking themselves, what do we lose when we price these types of people out of our community? So, one piece that I'd love the listeners to take away from this is that United Community Services of Johnson County worked with the Health Equity network, and a whole bunch of the county participated, as well as several municipalities in Johnson County, to do a housing study, and then release, a housing toolkit to really look at across sector ways that people can get involved in making some differences in this area.

Theresa Freed 11:08

Okay, and so can you talk about some of those strategies?

Megan Foreman 11:11

Sure, some of those strategies talk about kind of increasing this missing middle, and that sort of what I was talking about with those homes in that $250,000 price range, but um, you know, that's going to take maybe changing some zoning laws or changing some planning in the cities, but we're talking about duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts and things that are smaller and a little bit more affordable. And, you know, incentives for builders to build more affordable housing and to help buyers actually get into these places, and then preserving and rehabilitating existing housing stock. And, you know, really taking a hard look at reducing overall household expenditures to four families. So things like child care, their cost of food or transportation, really, so that there is a little bit more of a bite that housing can take out of that annual income.

Theresa Freed 12:02

And I'm sure some people, you know, when they hear that this housing is a public health issue it, there's not a direct connection for a lot of people. So can you talk about if I don't have optimal housing, if I'm not living in a great neighborhood? How does it impact my health?

Megan Foreman 12:20

Yeah, it's a little bit two steps down the road. So we kind of have to connect those dots. And, you know, let's take, for example, our COVID pandemic right now. And we know that our Black and Hispanic residents have gotten infected more, they've been hospitalized more, they've ended up in the ICU more and died of COVID at rates that are higher than our white residents. So, a lot of this is because maybe they're in jobs that put them at higher risk for infection to begin with, they can't work at home, they're considered that sort of essential workforce that's out on the frontlines. Um, you know, there's also a lot of poor health factors just going into an infection. So higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, other pieces that can kind of impact how that disease progression goes. And we know even prior to the pandemic data that we collected in 2017, showed that about 17% of our nonwhite residents didn't see a doctor, because of cost in the last year compared to only about 8% of our white residents. So, you know, this kind of historical lack of access to a lot of different resources, really compounds over time in health inequities.

Theresa Freed 13:32

And if I'm a resident here in Johnson County, and say, I live in a $300,000 house have access to, you know, great resources, why should I care about this issue?

Megan Foreman 13:41

It's really, if we want to move forward, I think, as a community, it's important that all of our residents are doing well. And over time, you know, we see the impacts of these disparities and they drag everyone down. Um, and I think having that more rich cultural heritage around us, and just the diversity that it can bring to all of our lives, I think is something that makes communities stronger, and makes them more resilient when people know their neighbors when they can connect across some of those things that maybe traditionally have divided us. But don't have to, I mean, as Andrew says, it's a lot of this is a historical construction. And that, you know, we don't have to continue living in.

Theresa Freed 14:29

Andrew, do you want to talk a little bit about how that transition once this once these policies and things were taken out, you know, how did that help improve neighborhoods?

Andrew Gustafson 14:40

You know, redlining becomes illegal in 1968, with one of the Civil Rights Acts as passed in the 1960s. But as I said, the structure that was in place, the system that was built up around this idea of working with some populations and not with others, on the basis of race, didn't go away. And so while access to the suburbs or communities that weren't in disinvested areas in downtowns, for example, opens up, there's new access, segregation ends. And so people have the, theoretically, the ability to move to other neighborhoods. It didn't always happen that way. For one thing, if you've been denied for 30 years, the ability to purchase a home on a mortgage that provides equity, as you're paying your mortgage, and your home is increasing in value, while you're living in and paying that mortgage, if you've been denied that, you're that much money behind the populations that have been able to do that been able to attain that. And so, by the time 30 years later, the neighborhoods in, say, Johnson County are available to residents in Kansas City, Missouri, who are living in previously-redlined communities, the housing costs might be too high to be able to move in there. So while the access is created, the ability is not necessarily there. So that's not a great answer. I'm sure it's the question. But and that's, as Megan was talking about, that that still exists right on that issue. And to go back to the question, you just asked, Megan, why should people care? You know, this is a this is a national history. As I said, this is a history of almost every city and its suburbs across the United States. And it is an integral piece to Johnson County's history. And Kansas cities there, they're connected so strongly in this in this issue. And so understanding that history, why our communities look the way they do, why some people live in some places, and others in other places, why we feel a way about a certain area, or don't feel a certain way about a certain area. That's all coming from this history. And so understanding that I think gives us a better understanding of ourselves, our communities, the people we live around. And, you know, hopefully we can use that to think about what we want our communities to look like in the future.

Theresa Freed 17:01

The next question just is, how do people get involved? How do they, you know, take that first step of educating themselves about the issue? And then what can they do to improve the situation here in Johnson County?

Andrew Gustafson 17:14

Yeah, so I mean, obviously, we want you to come see the exhibit. So that's one way. Absolutely. We have a website though a webpage That's the webpage for the exhibit. And all of the associated programming, we're offering over the course of 2022, a full slate of programming on various topics, historical connections, and modern legacies, related to redlining. And so that's a great way to learn and learn more get involved that way. We also have partnered with institutions, libraries, museums and other organizations across the metro and the region. They are offering programming at their own institutions and locations in conjunction with our efforts here in the exhibit in our programming over the course of the year, more than a dozen institutions. And so there are lots of ways to learn lots of things that you might be really interested in the Blue River, for example, Blue River Conservancy is a is a topic that will come up and environmental racism, environmental justice, healthcare, right through the panel, that Department of Health, United Community Services and Health Forward Foundation will be participating in, those both are happening in September. So those are two very different ways to learn things that might that you're maybe very passionate about. On our website, we have a list of resources for reading more learning more online, and then books. And then lastly, you know, for me, Redlining was about community disinvestment, and so investing in those communities in a variety of ways from learning about organizations that do work there, volunteering there, or you know, thinking about where you go out to eat, or where you order food from, that is all a way of, of trying to work, you know, to make a better future. And one thing I've learned, we, that we all have learned on the museum staff going through this process is that listening to the communities historically didn't happen. The communities were excluded from the policies that were being created, those policies were placed on them. And so listen to the communities that you want to help and see how they want to be helped and what you can do to help them and get involved. That would be the last thing for me.

Megan Foreman 19:25

Yeah. And Andrew, I'd even pick up on that point on a lot of the work that this Housing Task Force has done has really now, you know, gotten legs and is moving in city councils and other places around the county. So I you know, I would encourage people who are interested in getting involved today to see what their city is doing to increase affordable housing, ask people who are running for office for those local seats, and you know, learn what you can do to help push some of these policies and new practices forward in your community. And I would also say Andrew, I'm so glad you brought up the idea of even environmental justice because as the Department of Health and Environment, we're also featuring for Black History Month, a lot of different leaders in some of these spaces that have kind of come down through time. And so I would encourage everybody to just visit us on Facebook at JOCO Health Department. JoCoHealthDept. It's the is the handle. But, yeah, I can't I can't echo enough. Learning, getting out there. There are so many great resources and books that are easy to kind of meet anybody where they're at, you know, are you just putting your toes in the water on some of these issues, are the things that you're passionate about, and you really want to get out front and move some of them forward? I think there's a place for anybody in that journey.

Theresa Freed 20:47

All right, great information. I think, you know, just the bottom line is, no matter where you live in Johnson County, everybody should have an interest in this this topic. There are things that that any one of us can do to improve the situation and to learn about how that that history is impacting us today. So of course, we encourage our listeners to visit those websites and get more information and hopefully make a trip out to the museum and check out the exhibit. And that exhibit is running all year long. Is that right Andrew?

Andrew Gustafson 21:17

That's right, it runs through January 7, 2023. And so it'll be there.

Theresa Freed 21:22

Alright, plenty of time to get there. Thank you both for joining us today and great information once again and we appreciate all the all the details and also the all the hard work that's gone into the things that you're doing to bring the issue to life.

Announcer 21:37

You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast visit Thanks for listening.

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