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Housing discrimination increases asthma symptoms in children, study finds

Catherine Manson sits on the front porch with her children, Caydence Manson and Carter Manson, in Hartford, Conn., on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. The prevalence of asthma in the Connecticut public school system has slightly decreased over time but 25,576 students have asthma, or about 1 in 8, including Caydence and Carter. But the incidence among Black students is about 50% higher.
Wong Maye-E
Catherine Manson sits on the front porch of her aunt's home as her children, Caydence Manson, center, and Carter Manson, play close by in Hartford, Conn., on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. About 4 million children in the United States, including Caydence and Carter, currently have asthma. But stark disparities exist: More than 12% of Black children nationwide suffer from the disease, compared with 5% of white children.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that housing discrimination exacerbates asthma symptoms in children.

“In this census tract right here where we stand, there are 268 people out of every 10,000 who have asthma,” said Erin Boggs, a civil rights lawyer and executive director, Open Communities Alliance. “In Glastonbury [the next town over], the same statistic is seven out of 10,000.”

Shavonne Dawson lives in a rental unit in Hartford’s Barbour Street neighborhood.

“I've seen the mold in the pipes,” she said. “Like we actually plunged and had to snake the pipes because of the mold in the pipes,”

Dawson said her son was diagnosed with asthma at the emergency room, and was sent home with a nebulizer pump.

According to DataHaven's 2023 Community Wellbeing Index, Hartford residents are 2.4 times more likely to go to the emergency room due to asthma when compared to residents of surrounding towns. The study notes that Hartford averages 53 days per year of “poor” air quality or worse. Just thirty miles away, Stafford averages 28 days per year.

But Dawson said there was no point in moving, as most rental units around here were no different. And better units elsewhere were unaffordable.

Researchers of the JAMA Baltimore study pointed to structural racism driving disproportionally high asthma rates in children living in disadvantaged, urban neighborhoods. The study found that children in Baltimore who moved from high-poverty to low-poverty census tracts saw improvements in the number of asthmatic days.

In Hartford, as high as 44% of the population is made of Latinos, while 36% is Black, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

In Torrington, pediatrician Dr. Lucia Benzoni says her asthma patients who moved out of suboptimal housing no longer end up in the ER.

“I had a little boy who was 11, who had been in and out of the hospital, and his parents moved into a single family home,” she said. “And they didn't have people smoking below them anymore. And that child ended up in the emergency room not even once [after the move].”

The Baltimore study enrolled 123 children of whom 97.6% were Black. Prior to moving, 81% lived in a high-poverty census tract. The study also included measures of stress, such as neighborhood safety, which improved with relocation and were linked to asthma exacerbations.

Boggs tried to launch a program like that in Connecticut, where doctors like Benzoni can give housing vouchers to qualifying families wanting to move to a better neighborhood.

But it didn’t take off due to lack of funding. She hasn’t given up, though.

Right now, a billshe championed passed both chambers of the General Assembly, and would require the state to assess the need for affordable housing and allocate funding for it in a fair way to towns.

Opponents of that bill said fair share is bad policy, burdening local taxpayers. They say zoning is a right reserved for towns and cities, not the state.

Note: Hartford residents who need legal representation can call the Greater Hartford Legal Aid at 860-541-5000. 

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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