North Memphis

In poor communities, toxic housing is a risk factor for COVID-19 deaths

For people living in dangerous housing conditions, spending more time at home to avoid catching the novel coronavirus can be extremely risky.

“The dual challenge with COVID is that families are spending more time in unhealthy and unsafe housing which is posing an immediate risk to their health,” said Kate Klinger, VP of impact services with the national Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

Water leaks, poor ventilation, sewage backups, mold, lead exposure, and pest infestation can be everyday realities with immediate and long-term risks. Psychological stress, compromised immune systems, and chronic conditions like asthma and heart disease are all well-documented.

In the pandemic, pre-existing conditions and weak immune systems are especially dangerous. The CDC reported in June that COVID-related deaths were 12 times higher among people with a known pre-existing condition.

Kenzie Cleaves has lived at the Cypress Court Apartments in North Memphis for 2 years. 

“I have been dealing with bug issues, water issues, and poor maintenance,” said Cleaves.

There are vacant units in the small complex that Cleaves said have not been properly boarded up in over a year. Inside, there are parts of the ceiling falling in and trash strewn throughout. Outside, a large ditch runs in front of several apartments. Cleaves said that faulty plumbing causes raw sewage, used tampons, and anything else people flush to flow freely through it. 

“My daughter and [her] two kids live with me. I worry about the children having to spend so much time in these conditions," said Cleaves of their months spent sheltering in place. 

The areas most impacted by hazardous housing conditions and poor lifelong health outcomes are also those where home ownership is low and the poverty rate is high.

“There was a housing quality crisis long before COVID-19 hit,” said Sharon Hyde, housing program manager with the Memphis GHHI affiliate. “Areas with high [rental rates] are more susceptible because there are so many irresponsible landlords."

Unsurprisingly, in Memphis these neighborhoods are majority-Black.

The new threats posed by COVID-19 are only the latest chapter in a decades-long saga of housing discrimination in Memphis, which is itself only one chapter in the city's long history of policies and practices that have funneled wealth and health away from Black communities. 

The city's high-poverty, majority-Black communities are also healthcare deserts with many uninsured residents, few quality healthcare facilities, and limited access to the funds or transportation needed to seek care outside of the neighborhood. 

“From the data that we have, we know that where the healthcare infrastructure is poor and where the housing quality is poor, there are more cases of COVID-19,” said Hyde.

Most lower-income people can't just pick a new place and move if their housing is unsafe. There are deposits, fees, background checks, and employment requirements that can all pose big barriers. Those receiving public assistance are also limited by who will and won't take housing vouchers. Now with sky-high unemployment, especially among so-called "unskilled workers," options to relocated are even more limited.

Cleaves used to work as a janitor for a local company that maintained movie theaters, but she was laid off when the pandemic hit Shelby County.

“Now, I only get $94 per week in unemployment,” she said.
Kenzie Cleaves stands beside an open ditch in her North Memphis apartment complex. Cleaves said faulty piping regularly pushes raw sewage, used tampons, and other debris into the ditch daily. (Ziggy Mack)


A single home can have multiple hazards. 

“In homes where folks are overcrowded and where the ventilation is poor, there is an increased risk of contracting COVID-19,” Klinger said.

“Many homes suffer from unclean vents, lack of carbon monoxide detectors, lack of smoke detectors, roach infestation, and older carpets that are full of allergens,” said Hyde.

Lead exposure is another major in-home health hazard in Memphis.

“Lead causes high blood pressure, contributes to liver disease, and weakens the immune system, which makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19,” said Chet Kibble, director of the Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative.

Renters can report code violations or negligent landlords, but many fear retaliation and Memphis' code enforcement division is understaffed.

In March 2020, they added 27 new officers for a total of 61. They're tasked with inspecting, citing, and re-inspecting properties across more than 300 square miles. Violations are often fixed just enough to pass an inspection, but the problem soon returns.

Even with reporting and inspection, some hazards that will inevitably remain.

Take lead exposure, for example. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets a threshold of allowable blood lead levels for tenants in properties that accept public housing vouchers. If blood tests reveal higher levels, the property owner has to decontaminate the property. In 2017, HUD lowered that threshold from 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

GHHI's Housing Navigator program helps residents spot code violations and unhealthy situations in their homes and identify what they can address on their own, like pest control in some cases.

Prior to the pandemic, they offered in-home evaluations but have since pivoted to assessments by phone. GHHI also provides a recipe book to help residents make their own safe cleaning supplies. They have been dropping off supplies and food to individuals during the pandemic.

“They were very polite and helpful,” said Cleaves of her experience with a GHHI phone assessment. “They asked me questions about my home and made some helpful suggestions.”

But regardless of best efforts from organizations and residents to improve conditions in individual homes, the systemic issues remain. Hyde said these unhealthy and unsafe conditions and the people who live in them are all too easy for Memphians to ignore.

“North Memphis and South Memphis have so many areas that have been ignored for years,” Hyde said. "Unfortunately, these issues are simply not on the radar of Memphians whose exposure to Memphis is limited to their commute along the Poplar Corridor."
[This is part two of a three-part series on the intersections of race, environment, healthcare, and the novel coronavirus pandemic in Memphis' most disinvested communities. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief FundRead part one here. Keep an eye out for part three in October.]
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Read more articles by Chris Jones & Cole Bradley.