Written by: Whitney Parra-Gutiérrez, TAAHP Policy & Regulatory Manager
Housing is the foundation of living a healthy life. Research studies have demonstrated that when individuals and families live in safe, decent, stable housing, it has a significant impact on improving their health outcomes and helps to reduce healthcare costs. Therefore, a healthy home should be both affordable and designed, constructed, rehabilitated, and maintained to support the health and safety of its occupants.
Housing quality can explain health status in urban environments. With people spending approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, a home can be an agent for health or illness. Home hazards include lead, asthma, allergens, mold, pests, tobacco smoke, moisture, noise, asbestos, ventilation, sewage, drinking water contamination, and toxic chemicals. Attempting to address each one independently would be unworkable as most are related. Unfortunately, substandard housing has a disproportionate, negative impact on the health of vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities, children, and people of color. HUD reports that “3.3 million U.S. families with a child under age six years live in a home with one or more conditions that can expose their child to lead-based paint hazards. Of these homes, about 2.1 million house families with low income.” Recent research by the Episcopal Health Foundation found that Texans who live in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, low education levels, and large minority populations live significantly shorter lives compared to those who live in communities with high incomes, low poverty rates, high education levels, and large white populations. In Austin, this translated to life expectancies as high as 88.9 years in predominately white neighborhoods in Western Travis County and as low as 71.5 years in neighborhoods of color in East Austin — nearly a 20-year gap.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, approximately 43 percent of renter households worry about their home negatively affecting their or another occupant’s health, safety, and well-being. The pandemic brought awareness to the importance of indoor air quality when people were forced to spend more time in their homes. The survey also found that two out of five renters do not believe landlords would address the negative health impacts of their homes. Respondents flagged landlord negligence in upkeep and repairs, such as rotting steps, faulty electrical wiring, water damage, or mold. Renters are reluctant to raise these issues with their landlords out of fear that they could be evicted or experience other types of retaliation. Maintaining housing affordability and stability can be more critical to low-income tenants that might not have the means to relocate from substandard housing.
Ensuring Healthy Housing for all
Last October, HUD released a statement that the Biden-Harris Administration renewed their commitment to ensuring healthy homes for all by making available over $450 million for programs to assess and remediate lead-based paint and other housing-related health hazards, to make safety and functional home modifications and repairs to meet the needs of low-income elderly homeowners, to develop new and improved methods to identify and control residential health hazards, and to mitigate health and safety hazards and make improvements in energy efficiency and comfort. During a conversation on lead poisoning and awareness, Secretary Marcia L. Fudge stated, “We know that this problem, in particular, is a racial equity issue. We know that it affects Black and brown people and poor people so severely that if we don’t raise our voices, no one will. It is so isolated. But as you said, it is also so urgent. We cannot afford to lose thousands and thousands of young people to something that we can stop.” Fortunately, HUD is not alone in the efforts to ensure healthy homes for all. Recognizing the intersection between health and housing, an alliance in Dallas launched an initiative in 2014 to incorporate healthy home standards into the city’s new housing ordinance. The Health and Wellness Alliance for Children’s Physical Environments Working Group recommended updates via a proposed ordinance to amend Chapter 27 “Minimum Urban Rehabilitation Standards” of the Dallas City Code Housing Ordinance, which stipulates the applicable to residential and nonresidential structures. The amendments included addressing healthy housing standards, strengthening maintenance and repair standards, and reassessing the maximum indoor air temperature when air conditioning is provided. It also authorizes the director of code compliance to create a risk-based inspection program for multi-tenant properties and created incentives for landlords to maintain their properties. The City Council passed the ordinance with a vote of 12 to one in September 2016. The alliance credits its success to working through a shared vision, raising awareness of the housing and health connection, and building trust among various partners.
To improve the overall health outcomes of vulnerable populations in Texas, the physical needs of the existing affordable housing stock in Texas must be addressed. All affordable housing units, regardless of age, should meet the standards of safety, sustainability, and disability accessibility required for new construction. The health of low- and moderate-income residents living in Texas could be improved with additional funding and resources allocated to the rehabilitation of existing affordable housing stock alongside the development of new, quality affordable communities.