Our Blog

Communities Building Housing—and Hope

By Joanne Lee on March 21st, 2019

The County Health Rankings, released every year since 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, provide data snapshots of health for every county in our nation and make it clear that where you live influences how well and how long you live. The Rankings are based on a model of population health that emphasizes factors that make communities healthier places to live, learn, work, and play.


This year, the Rankings highlight the link between health and stable, affordable housing. The data include insights about housing affordability; insecure housing and homelessness; cost burden in relation to food insecurity and children in poverty; and the intersection of housing with place, race, and health.


But the Rankings release offers more than just data. It is also a powerful call to action that community leaders can leverage to improve health for everyone. The 2019 County Health Rankings Key Findings Report includes evidence-informed strategies and examples from communities to help others identify and implement solutions.

Upholding the wisdom within communities is a value that Healthy Places by Design shares with County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHR&R), and one reason why our partnership has been so strong. We have worked together to acknowledge and highlight how communities strategically use data and tailor strategies to address their unique needs and contexts.

Since 2016, Healthy Places by Design has supported the CHR&R Action Acceleration and Collaborative Learning initiative, which funds these types of community-led efforts. This work has been made possible through a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, and Healthy Places by Design. The funding opportunity was designed with a rapid-response or opportunity grants approach, enabling communities to respond to timely priorities.

The 37 CHR&R Action Acceleration and Collaborative Learning Fund awardees to date have addressed a range of health factors, including housing. Specifically, the following projects demonstrate community-grounded strategies that improve housing and health.

Policy Change
  • The Irvington Health Coalition in NJ developed a residential pest-management policy to improve sanitation and code enforcement practices within the Township. This strategy was developed after recognizing that, while residents benefitted from being trained by pest management experts on how to protect their homes, some issues were beyond individuals’ control.
  • Santa Ana Active Streets in CA formalized an exclusive negotiating agreement to transfer a city-owned vacant lot to the local Community Land Trust and enable the Trust to develop more vacant lots into affordable housing. This was part of a broader ongoing campaign to give the community control over publicly owned vacant lots.
Capacity Building
  • A partnership in Missoula, MT helped the local skilled-labor force learn innovative weatherproofing techniques to prevent residents’ pipes from freezing in the winter. The partnership also developed new home repair and improvement approaches that were adapted from a design charrette involving builders, architects, city staff, residents, and other community stakeholders.
  • The Curry County Homeless Coalition in OR changed perceptions and stereotypes about homelessness through trainings and an experiential “poverty simulation” which engaged school personnel, social service providers and recipients, and other community residents and stakeholders. The Coalition also provided supplies (like warming kits, tents, sleeping bags, socks, and blankets) to partner agencies that serve as local homeless portals.
Resident Engagement
  • The Home Preservation Initiative in Philadelphia, PA implemented Healthy Homes workshops based on civic associations, which led to community influence being incorporated into the initiative. Healthy home supply kits were also provided to low-income residents.
Data Use and Sharing
  • The CARE AC coalition in Atlantic City, NJ expanded service providers’ use of the Homeless Management Information System in order to reduce duplication of efforts and highlight intersections between various service providers in the community. An overarching goal was to increase interagency referrals and positive client experiences.

These communities not only share a common focus on housing and health, but also demonstrate the value of understanding what a community’s most pressing needs are before identifying promising solutions. This helps ensure that when funding or resources become available, communities are able to seize those opportunities.

Identifying communities’ needs can begin with an exploration of this year’s Rankings data and an authentic engagement process to understand how the data intersects with residents’ lived experiences. One of Healthy Places by Design’s six Essential Practices, Community Engagement is an intentional process of empowering residents to make meaningful contributions to the planning and implementation of solutions in their own communities, and one that can build hope and momentum for a culture of health.

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.