Housing is a Health Issue

No, Really…housing is a public health issue.

As cliché as it may be, health is everything.  The air we breathe – health.  The type of work we do – health.  The quantity and quality of sleep we get – health.  The community we live in – health.  The quality of housing we reside in – health.  Our every day environment impacts our physical, mental, social, and economic health.  There’s no getting around it.

Come along with me for a little ride (or walk)…

Imagine you rent a home constructed in the 1970’s.  Imagine that the maintenance on your home has been minimal over the years (chipping paint, poor insulation, exposed electrical, etc.).  Your home does not have central air, but you are fortunate enough to have a furnace that ‘sometimes’ runs.  The plumbing is adequate, but the pest issue is a whole different story.

Now lets talk about your neighborhood…

You work a low-wage job; you cannot afford to live in a higher rent community.  Your home is near a major highway.  Criminal activity is regularly occurring a couple blocks away.

Think about your day…

Your job offers very little flexibility and is pretty stressful.  Your commute is stressful. You battle traffic everyday in order to come home to your older, poorly maintained, pest-infested home in a neighborhood you can’t wait to move out of.

What does your day feel like?  Think about it.  You’re stressed; that’s impacting your mental and physical health.  The air quality, both inside and outside of your home, is not the best; that’s impacting your physical health.  There is not a real sense of community and your neighborhood does not feel safe; that’s impacting your social health.  Seriously, how do you feel when you think about your day?

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You can pick any one of these elements, it doesn’t have to be as dire as I’ve outlined.  My point is that where (and how) one lives greatly impacts their health and quality of life.  My other point is that one’s income impacts where they live, which impacts overall health.  The need for quality housing that is affordable is huge; however, the necessary implementation and advocacy is sometimes minimal.

One strategy, among many, is true community outreach and engagement.  The other, you may have guessed, is addressing housing as a public health issue.  How do we do that?  We address equity.  We address factors and upstream determinants like education, income, and workforce development. We also begin to talk about the connections between housing and public health at every opportunity.  Bringing about change in order to improve individual and community physical, mental, social, and economic health is crucial.   Lets continue to get real, lets continue to have meaningful conversations, and lets continue to work together (across sector lines) to transform communities.

Katie Leonard is a public health-land use planner dedicated to building equitable, healthy, livable communities by addressing public health impacts from the built environment.