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Home Is Where Health Is: A Stable, Affordable Home Is a Prescription for Good Health

As Children’s HealthWatch regularly demonstrates to policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public: a stable, affordable home is a prescription for good health. Unfortunately, that prescription is out of reach for tens of millions of people.

At the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), we work to ensure that the lowest income people in the United States have safe, accessible, affordable homes. Today, over 8 million households with extremely low incomes are either homeless or pay unaffordable rents that force them to make untenable choices between paying the rent and paying for other life necessities like nutritious food, heat, and medications. In 99% of counties in the United States, a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a modest one-bedroom rental home. The number of households with “worst-case housing needs” – that is, households with very low incomes that either pay more than half their income for rent or live in severely substandard housing and receive no aid – has risen by 66% since 2001. Nationally, there are only 37 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.

Housing insecurity and homelessness disproportionately impact people of color due to a long and ongoing legacy of racist, segregationist public policies at the federal, state, and local levels as well as ongoing structural racism. Today, black and Latinx households are more likely to have extremely low incomes than white households. Extremely low income renters with severe cost burdens in rent are disproportionately Latinx and black. People of color make up a disproportionate share of the people experiencing homelessness, and are also much more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. In fact, one in four black families and one in six Latinx families live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to just one in thirteen white families.

The affordable housing crisis spills over into many other sectors. Without stable affordable homes in strong neighborhoods, students are more likely to fall behind at school and less likely to climb the income ladder as adults. When rent eats up hard-earned paychecks, households have less disposable income to buy adequate and nutritious food. Individuals transitioning out of the criminal justice system struggle to reconnect with society without a place to call home. Stable affordable housing is also essential for economic growth; caring for veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities; and, of course, promoting better health outcomes. The work of Children’s HealthWatch has enabled housing advocates to make a powerful case that stable affordable homes are linked to the prevention of individual health problems across the lifespan and can result in major healthcare savings for the nation.

The connections between housing and health have now been clearly established. That’s why Children’s HealthWatch and NLIHC, along with our partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and National Alliance to End Homelessness, founded the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign. Opportunity Starts at Home is an unparalleled multi-sector campaign to bring a diverse array of organizations into the work of housing advocacy and to push for more robust and equitable federal housing policies. It is time to broaden the movement for affordable homes to include other sectors: health, education, civil rights, anti-poverty, anti-hunger, criminal justice, social work, and more. Leaders from these sectors increasingly recognize that they can’t accomplish their own goals if the people they serve do not have access to safe, accessible, affordable homes. At the same time, housing advocates recognize that a broader, more diverse movement is needed to achieve transformative policy change.

When housing advocates work alongside pediatricians, public health researchers, and health policy experts, we pique the interests of policymakers in new ways and urge them to take action. Some elected officials might not place housing at the top of their priority list, but chances are that they have prioritized an issue in their agenda to which housing is deeply connected, such as healthcare. Through the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, we can more readily deploy our health partners to help make the case for why strong housing policies will improve an array of health outcomes. Together we can ensure that the lowest income people in our country are stably housed and healthy.

Diane Yentel is the President & CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), and the recipient of the 2019 Children’s HealthWatch Champion Award. NLIHC is a membership organization dedicated solely to achieving socially just public policy that ensures people with the lowest incomes in the United States have affordable and decent homes. Diane is a veteran affordable housing policy expert with nearly two decades of work on affordable housing and community development. She is frequently quoted in major media outlets, and has testified multiple times before Congress. Diane has a Masters in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin.