Housing environments not only affect health and safety, but also create opportunities for connection with neighbors and community members.i
Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, substandard housing is a critical issue in the U.S. and contributes to a vicious spiral of poverty and poor health. More than two million U.S. childrenii are homeless, and even more are impacted by housing instability. While housing can be a wealth-building tool, historically oppressive policies and practices (such as redlining, predatory lending, and land theftiii) have made homeownership disproportionately difficult for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). Absentee landlords and housing discrimination further exacerbate negative conditions. In addition to disrupting employment, education, and continuity of services, unstable housing conditions also weaken social networks. The housing system is complex and must be addressed collaboratively with many goals in mind. These include affordability, equity, quality, stability, cultural sensitivity, environmental impacts, and social well-being.
Safe, affordable, stable, and healthy housing is a basic human need. Housing environments (the conditions related to housing structures and their surroundings) also greatly influence health and well-being. Communities that offer a variety of housing options help meet these basic needs. Furthermore, we must design the surrounding neighborhood to enhance safety, provide access to resources such as healthy food and jobs, create opportunities to build relationships with neighbors, and strengthen an overall sense of community.iv Numerous examples of healthy housing environments exist. Let’s start with two.
In Richmond, Virginia, a 2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize winner, the Richmond City Health District (RCHD), mapped the prevalence of poor health indicators such as infant mortality, chronic disease, and substance abuse. RCHD found a strong link to public housing. In response, it partnered with the city’s redevelopment and housing authority to embed health resource centers in the largest public housing developments. The centers are staffed with community health workers who have lived in public housing and are able to build trusting relationships with residents. Community health workers connect people to specific resources, like counseling and employment services, and to each other. RCHD also began addressing the design of housing and neighborhoods so the supply of public housing is not diminished when public housing developments are replaced or redesigned, and families are paired with a “family transition coach” if relocation is necessary. These coaches work with families for at least one year to help them gain employment, improve financial management skills, and achieve other goals. Learn more here.
During a critical stage of life, young people in prison are exposed to harmful environments where fear and isolation are the norm, and where they are disconnected from their families and support networks. To improve conditions, Restoring Promise creates alternative housing units for young adults in prison which are grounded in dignity and transform the culture, climate, rhythms, and routines that define the prison system. Designs are driven by incarcerated people and corrections staff, empowering those most impacted by the system to create the changes they know are needed. Restoring Promise’s approach-- anti-racist, values-based, and transforms correctional culture through training, presentations, workshops, and healing circles—sets a new tone for the entire system. This model disrupts harmful practices and policies within prison systems; confronts how historical racism manifests in prisons; and repairs harm for people living and working in prison, as well as their families and communities. Learn more here.
In our recent report, Socially Connected Communities: Solutions for Social Isolation, we shared three ideas for constructing housing environments that build community.
Policies can ensure a plentiful supply of affordable, stable housing options. Examples of supportive housing policies include rent regulation and “just causev” eviction policies as well as property tax relief for income-qualified homeowners to prevent rising property taxes from displacing families.vi Housing education and counseling for prospective buyers can be combined with ample affordable housing options and policies that provide financial supports for housing stability.
Homelessness is a critical issue impacting more than a half million people on any given night, with BIPOC people more likely to experience homelessness than the national average and white people. Housing First strategy is a person-centered and client-driven strategy that addresses homelessness with a recovery-oriented approach that helps people find permanent housing with wrap-around support, regardless of their age, identity, or history. This strategy also prioritizes social and community integration by using models that do not stigmatize or isolate people, but rather provide social and cultural engagement options, supported by employment and recreational activities.vii
Finally, community conversations around the role of past practices and oppressive policies, like redlining, and implementing equitable investments can help communities heal and restore trust in local leaders.
Community centers, green spaces, neighborhood parks, playgrounds, dog parks, and recreational options in housing developments draw people together Work with local healthcare providers to use social prescribingviii to encourage people experiencing health needs, including social isolation, to use these community assets. Co-locate parks and affordable housing wherever possible. Ensure that parks are safe and welcoming to all—especially people who are too often displaced or excluded. Outdoor gathering places become even more important when physical distancing is required due to health concerns.
Mixed-income housing supports a spectrum of price points and creates a diverse community while reducing the stigma of “public housing.” Mixed-use developments improve access to various services and resources, which reduces transportation-related challenges and can increase street-level activity. Increased activity on streets improves safety and provides opportunities for spontaneous interaction with others. Include zoning ordinances that promote mixed housing with spaces for gathering and activities, along with proximity to healthy food, health care, places to be active, and more. Wide sidewalks with shaded trees and benches can improve access to nearby resources and encourage walking and socializing. Ensure that housing serves people with differing abilities and cultural needs so that people with diverse life experiences can interact. Combined with other supports, this may also help reduce biases and stigmas.ix
People living in socially connected communities are more likely to thrive because they feel safe, welcome, and trust each other and their government. The housing environments in every community are a critical factor in creating that sense of security and wellbeing. Let’s leverage them for the greater good!
i Taylor, L. (2018, June 07). Housing and Health: An Overview of the Literature (Policy brief). HealthAffairs. DOI:10.1377/hpb20180313.396577
ii Bassuk, E. L., DeCandia, C. J., Beach, C. A., & Berman, F. (2014, November). America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness. American Institutes for Research.
iii Barth, B. (2019, August 19). How did African-American farmers lose 90 percent of their land? Retrieved from https://modernfarmer.com/2019/08/how-did-african-american-farmers-lose-90-percent-of-their-land/
iv Taylor, L. (2018, June 07). Housing and Health: An Overview of the Literature (Policy brief). HealthAffairs. DOI:10.1377/hpb20180313.396577
v Just cause eviction policies support residential stability by limiting the reasons a landlord can evict tenants to causes such as nonpayment of rent, intentional damage to the unit, or other violations of terms within a rental lease.
vi Property tax relief for income-qualified homeowners. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.localhousingsolutions.org/act/housing-policy-library/property-tax-relief-for-income-qualified-homeowners-overview/property-tax-relief-for-income-qualified-homeowners/
vii Supportive housing. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.achievehs.org/supportive-housing.html
viii Health professionals use social prescribing as an alternative to traditional prescriptions to improve patients’ health. Examples of social prescribing programs include Parkrx and Walk with a Doc.
ix Improving the quality of housing. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/implement/physical-social-environment/housing-quality/main