Healthy Active Communities in Portland addressed creative tension in its efforts to improve low-income, multi-family housing developments and prevent childhood obesity in East Portland by addressing other health issues (such as asthma) and resident concerns where feasible. It chose to advance educational approaches to healthy housing over regulatory ones that might deter further development of multi-family rental housing.
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Low-income children in and around Portland are the most likely to be overweight or obese. Paradoxically, nearly one in four Multnomah County children goes hungry. Many of these children live in multi-family dwellings that are either public housing, properties managed by non-profit organizations or private-market apartments.
In East Portland, many families live in neighborhoods with high poverty, prevalent crime and inadequate housing. East Portland was rezoned over the past 40 years to accommodate more multi-family housing and, as a result, has concentrated many social and economic problems to one side of the city. While healthy eating and active living advocates have gained traction by improving streets, parks, food retail venues, farmers markets and community gardens, “healthy housing” has emerged as a challenging but critical focus area for improving the health of low-income residents. Portland’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) partnership learned directly from children and their parents – housing tenants – about their specific challenges in East Portland.
Amy Gilroy, project director for Portland’s HKHC initiative, describes what families are up against. “People’s homes are often far from markets that sell fresh produce and culturally-relevant foods. And for some families, lack of kitchen storage and preparation space make it difficult to prepare meals at home, which increases their reliance on unhealthy convenience foods. Children also lack adequate open space and safe places to play and be physically active. Many multi-family units are served by incomplete sidewalk and transit networks and typically lack bicycle storage space.”
Led by the Oregon Public Health Institute, the HKHC partnership’s goal has been to improve health-related conditions in low-income housing developments in the city. HKHC Steering Committee members include the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), Community Cycling Center, Portland Housing Bureau, Hacienda CDC, ROSE CDC, Northwest Health Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. BPS also led the Health and Housing Partnership, through which the Community Alliance of Tenants, Center for Intercultural Organizing and the Housing Development Center addressed broader public health issues affecting residents living in private market rate housing.
The HKHC partners have not only worked directly to empower tenants to identify and improve unhealthy conditions, they have also engaged landlords, property managers and developers of multi-family housing.