The rain started just before Mother’s Day, in 2006. It fell for days over the Merrimack Valley, causing the worst flooding in decades.
Water reached to rooftops. Pipes burst in Haverhill, pouring millions of gallons of sewage into the rising Merrimack River. Streets flooded, highways closed, thousands of people evacuated their homes.
Andy Vargas was a teenager at the time, living with his parents in Haverhill. He remembers his dad buying three separate pumps to empty the flooded basement. His grandmother's house, a few blocks away, was also flooded, with water reaching "almost halfway to the roof," Vargas recalls. "And you know, buying a $100 pump for families in those neighborhoods like mine can really hurt your monthly income."
Vargas grew up in a neighborhood called “the Acre.” In federal maps from the 1930s this area was shaded red, or “redlined.” The practice of redlining came about during the Great Depression; as part of an effort to keep households from defaulting on their mortgages, the Roosevelt administration created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) to offer favorable home loans to certain families.
HOLC hired local real estate agents to make appraisals in cities nationwide, and used that information to make color-coded maps. Neighborhoods with a heavy immigrant or Black population, or in some cases, even a single Black family, were deemed risky or "hazardous" and shaded red. Banks were advised not to offer mortgage loans to people living there.
Appraisers included notes to explain their decisions. The notes on Haverhill's Acre neighborhood describe an “old and run down section” with “streets among the worst in Haverhill,” inhabited by a "low-grade population" of Irish immigrants.
Vargas — now a state representative from Haverhill — says the effects of the racist redlining policy reverberate today.
"When you look at the redlining maps that were created in the early 1900s and you overlay that with the lowest-income census tracts of today, they almost identically match up," says Vargas. "There are systemic forces at play from 100 years ago that are still affecting the socioeconomic status of families today."
Redlining may also be making people more vulnerable to climate change – specifically, to extreme heat and flooding. Two years ago, an environmental justice nonprofit called Groundwork USA started to research this theory in detail, overlaying the old redlining maps with things like heat data from NASA and flood-risk maps from FEMA. Two recently-completed cities in their Climate Safe Neighborhoods mapping project are Haverhill and Lawrence.
"We said, 'Is there a relationship between historical segregation practices — and we're using redlining as a proxy for that — and modern-day vulnerability to extreme heat and to extreme wet?' And we found the answer is a resounding 'yes,'" said Cate Mingoya, director of capacity building for Groundwork USA.
Redlining did not create racial segregation, but it codified it, denying homeownership to many Black and immigrant families nationwide. And it had a long reach; labelling areas "hazardous" or "high risk" discouraged investment in those neighborhoods for decades.
(Editor's Note: The above maps from Groundwork's Climate Safe Neighborhoods project show how the 1937 HOLC map lines up with Haverhill today. Explore the full map including flood hazard zones, heat vulnerability areas and hazardous material sites here.)
"If you highlight an area where you can't invest, that just becomes the base for everything else," says Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, the Merrimack Valley affiliate of the national group. "Folks weren't able to get affordable mortgages. They can't invest in their properties. When properties don't look good, the city's not necessarily investing. It took away the building blocks of a sustainable neighborhood, and we're still dealing with that legacy today."
Redlining has gained more attention in recent years, with digitization projects like "Mapping Inequality" making the maps easily available, and books like the bestselling "The Color of Law" drawing attention to historic housing segregation.
The Groundwork maps, along with research from other institutions, show that areas redlined in the 1930s still generally have fewer trees and parks — and more pavement and parking lots — than areas that were “greenlined,” or labelled safe for investment. Even though the city of Haverhill has made a significant effort to plant trees in formerly redlined areas, Groundwork's map for the Acre neighborhood shows red splotches for heat risk, black smudges for pavement and spotty patches of trees.
Excess pavement and lack of tree cover isn't just an aesthetic problem — these factors increase residents' economic and health risks from climate change. Researchers in Virginia have found up to a 13-degree difference between redlined and non-redlined neighborhoods within the same city. The average difference is about 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
"That means your AC has to run more, which means your electrical bills are higher, which means you have less money for food and rent," says McMann. "You're putting an undue burden on folks who can least afford it. If you can't afford your AC and you have asthma, it's going to be really tough to breathe in the summer."
"The whole redlining concept is very useful for making the systemic racism very, very present and visible in the map," says John Walkey, waterfront initiative coordinator for GreenRoots, an environmental nonprofit in Chelsea that was not involved with the Groundwork mapping project. He notes that research doesn't always show a direct correlation between redlining and climate risk, because gentrification and other factors come into play.
Mingoya agrees, but says that overall, Groundwork's maps are adding to a growing awareness of the links between racist housing practices and climate vulnerability. She says residents of Denver have used the maps to demand more trees for a redlined neighborhood; and the city of Richmond, Virginia, changed its master planning process to prioritize historically underfunded areas. Haverhill Mayor James Florentini notes that tree-planting efforts have made the city one the the top five nationwide to see the largest increase in canopy coverage in redlined neighborhoods.
"How can you look at these maps and see the disparity and not move forward with some sort of a solution?" asked Mingoya. "How can you see it and not be moved by it?"
Mingoya hopes the maps of Haverhill and nearby Lawrence will spur community engagement and local solutions. Although Lawrence wasn’t historically redlined, it has hot spots and flood zones like Haverhill. Groundwork has been working in Lawrence for years, trying to prevent flooding from the Spicket River, which swamped the city during the 2006 Mother's Day floods.
"It's a small river, but the walls are very straight. There isn't really anywhere for this water to go but up and out," explains Eddie Rosa, community engagement director for Groundwork Lawrence.
He recalls the 2006 Mother's Day flood as "a real moment of struggle" for Lawrence, which raised awareness about the flood risk from the Spicket.
Groundwork Lawrence has spearheaded green infrastructure projects to help prevent flooding, most notably the 3.5-mile Spicket River Greenway, a walking path that connects parks and open space along the river. Designers engineered the Greenway to help with flood control — Rosa points out an example on the riverbank.
"There's a dip here, the ground is made kind of concave — even with the snow cover, you can see it," he says. The shallow, almost unnoticeable trench along the bank serves as a place for water to settle. Then, trees and soil can absorb excess water before it floods nearby streets and the DPW facility next door.
Another nearby example is William Kennedy Park, next to Central Catholic High School. Rosa's colleague, Tennis Lilly, said the park does double-duty as floodwater storage and ecological oasis.
"You have this nice pond here. You'll have redwing blackbirds nesting in here. You'll have ducks and geese, you have the beaver, there are turtles in there," Lilly says. "We're on the front lines of climate change dealing with the brunt of the impact here. But we're also coming up with these really creative solutions."
Andy Vargas, the state representative from Haverhill, has his own creative solution in mind: he’d like to see the state offer money to help people retrofit their homes and make them climate ready. That way residents won’t have to pay extra for air conditioning and basement pumps.
"Some people like to separate economic problems from climate problems and say we can only do one or the other," he says. "But they're inextricably tied to each other."
This article was originally published on March 05, 2021.
This segment aired on March 4, 2021.