Home Finance Lack of Affordable Housing Creates Growing Gap Between Communities and Healthcare

Lack of Affordable Housing Creates Growing Gap Between Communities and Healthcare

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Courtesy of Zhifei Zhou

By Catherine Sweeney 

Affordable housing has been an issue across the United States for many years. However, COVID-19 has in recentlly shed a light on the impact of increased costs on a community’s overall health. The National Housing Conference and NeighborWorks America recently joined forces to share how the impact of housing on a community and how collaboration can help bridge the gap between the two. 

“It takes thoughtful action to achieve health equity. Work must be intentionally focused on removing the obstacles to health, such as poverty and racism, and be keenly focused on creating opportunity and access through cultivating the voice and partnership of residents,” said Romi Hall, director of Healthy Homes and Communities at NeighborWorks America 

According to Hall, the chartered network-based organization has more than 250 affiliate organizations throughout the county. Of these, nearly 70 percent are implementing some form of healthy housing initiatives, including providing rental resilience funds and offering onsite services to affordable housing properties, such as vaccination clinics and food pantries.  

Despite current efforts, the gap between health and housing continues to be an issue , with about $1 trillion spent annually on preventable medical bills from chronic conditions caused by poverty. According to the organization, these conditions could be greatly reduced through the implementation of more affordable housing. 

Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the average rental rate for housing across the nation is approximately $1,207 per month. This continues to increase as rental vacancies average 5.6 percent. Homeownership vacancies were even lower at 0.9 percent, with the U.S. Census Bureau showing houses across the U.S. selling for $239,000. 

The affordable housing crisis continues to be an even larger issue in cities, like Los Angeles, where the average home cost is $934,305 and rental rates average $2,563 per month. Across the West Coast, similar prices were observed. In San Francisco, rent averages $3,244 per month, with houses selling for an average rate of $1.5 million. Seattle also reported higher than average rental rates at $2,197 per month and average housing prices reaching $915,340. 

Creating housing that is more affordable is one way to help marginalized communities. However, NeighborWorks America also noted it is equally important for affordable housing developers and healthcare groups to integrate onsite services and look to local and statewide legislation to improve overall aspects of communities that lead to improved health. 

“A number of strategies can underline a comprehensive community development approach, including health. Though, what is key and core to this work is how comprehensive community development work must be intentional and must be equitable and inclusive, that it drives partnership. What I would say is most critical is that the work is community driven,” Hall said. 

For instance, health organizations and nonprofits can partner with affordable housing developers to offer free medical, dental and mental health screenings along with other regular checkups to prevent larger bills that can come from unnoticed health complications. 

Additionally, state, local and federal governments can implement new policies to help community health. Recent updates to some Medicaid programs, for example, could provide assistance to the more than 7.5 million Americans who utilize its services. 

Waivers implemented in the program throughout the past several years can help sustain community health. Home- and community-based services waivers allow for those in need of care to remain independent in their homes rather than nursing home facilities. 

Another type of waiver is the 1115 demonstration waiver, which allows states to test new ways of providing care. California has implemented this waiver to establish the Whole Person Care program, which provides funding to 25 counties and cities across the state to invest in infrastructure linking Medicaid with social service providers as well as some non-clinical services.

However, the main way to provide health services to a community is to listen to those in a particular community, Hall said. By coordinating efforts within communities, public and government agencies can learn more about the specific work that needs to be done within a specific area. 

“Our history has taught us that residents are the best authorities of what in their community is a threat. This matters because resident engagement leads to more effective and lasting solutions, ongoing investment, which are foundational conditions to creating and maintaining healthier, safer and more vibrant communities,” Hall said.