Pediatrician at NIFA housing summit: ‘Health, wealth and housing — you can’t separate them.’

LINCOLN — Mouse droppings led to a “eureka moment” for Dr. Megan Sandel, who at the time was a pediatric resident in Boston.

Sandel, speaking Wednesday in Nebraska, back then had been caring for a child who was admitted to the intensive care unit with a worsening case of asthma. She and the family were “tearing our hair out” trying to figure out the trigger, and then someone mentioned a newcomer to the child’s home, a cat.


The family had gotten the cat to get rid of mice the landlord neglected to handle. While the cat chased away the mice — they’d gotten so bad they left droppings in the child’s bed — the feline set off her asthma attacks.

“The prescription I wanted to write was a healthy home — but we didn’t stock that at the pharmacy at our hospital, Boston Medical Center,” said Sandel.

From that point on, safe housing and good health would be forever entwined in her mind and her work.

So it made sense that Sandel, a medical doctor, researcher and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, was invited to be featured speaker at a housing summit hosted this week by the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority.

NIFA was created by the Nebraska Legislature in 1983 to help meet affordable housing needs across the state, in part by providing financing through the awarding of low-income housing tax credits. About 700 people registered for the three-day conference at the Lincoln Cornhusker Marriott titled: Framing the Future.

Evidence is clear

Stressing that safe and affordable housing is a predictor of positive health outcomes, Sandel, to illustrate her point, turned to maps of the Boston area that showed a correlation between historic “redlined” areas and current high diabetes rates and lower life expectancies.

Redlining was the practice of denying home loans to people in certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It has led to ongoing economic and other disparities.

Sandel said the evidence moving forward is clear: Stronger partnerships between housing and health care sectors can create more vibrant families and communities. She urged housing developers, policymakers and others in the audience to help forge such connections, even though she said they’re still viewed as somewhat unconventional.

Health care systems bring both political and capital clout to the equation, Sandel said, citing examples where hospital systems have become investors in helping to accelerate the production of affordable housing.

“Health, wealth and housing — you can’t separate them,” Sandel said. “We have to partner.”