SANDEL: Stable, decent, affordable homes is a Rx for healthy families

Originally published on The Patriot Ledger.

Where you live as a child may be the strongest predictor of your health and has lifelong consequences. In fact, stable, decent, affordable housing is a prescription for good health, but it is out of reach for many South Shore families. Currently, the construction of single family and multi-family housing is at its lowest point since the 1950s, while the need for affordable housing is at an all-time high. Because of this, families sometimes have to choose between paying for rent and buying food.

In the town of Hingham, for example, the average cost of a home is $608,000. The average cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment is more than $2,100, requiring an income of $84,000, or $40 an hour. At more than three times the state’s hourly wage, the high cost constitutes a housing crisis for many families.

Research from Children’s HealthWatch, a national network of pediatricians and researchers based at Boston Medical Center, shows housing instability is a serious issue that impacts a family’s health and well-being. Pediatricians see families every day that cannot solve the puzzle of how to pay rent, put food on the table, and have enough money left over to give their children opportunities to thrive.

At Boston Medical Center, the GROW Clinic for Children focuses on “failure to thrive” in children who are at least an inch off the growth curve. In most countries, it would meet the World Health Organization’s definition of malnutrition.

Recently I examined a 2-year-old who had not outgrown his 12-month-old clothes. He was severely stunted and not growing. We tried tests, nutritional shakes and medicine, but nothing was working. Then he suddenly started growing. After being on wait-list for years, his family was selected to receive an affordable housing apartment. They went from sleeping in an overcrowded family member’s living room to a home of their own. The child now sleeps through the night in a bed by himself. He can sit at a table and not be distracted by people coming and going and he eats better. These are all important factors contributing to his health and his ability to grow and thrive.

Stable homes are more than just being able to afford them. They also need to have safe conditions. It is estimated that 40 percent of childhood asthma is attributable to the home environment and the number of children suffering from viral infections and anemia can be related. Children thrive with stability, yet it is estimated that more than 3 million people are at risk of eviction or homelessness annually.

With one in four renters paying more than 50 percent of the take-home income on rent, many must choose to cut back on food, heat, or health care. Having a family in stable housing not only helps them, but also creates a ripple effect that helps the community. Evidence shows, stable communities are safer communities.

All of these conditions are incredibly important for parents as well. When families can afford their housing and live in healthy conditions, it reduces the amount of lost wages when parents have to care for sick children. Stable homes lower overall healthcare costs.

Families and housing advocates alone cannot solve this challenge. That is why I support South Shore Habitat for Humanity. They work tirelessly to raise money and awareness to build and provide affordable housing opportunities for families. Together with the new national, multi-sector campaign called Opportunity Starts at Home, we are calling for more affordable housing solutions at the local and federal level. This broad range of stakeholders from various sectors is needed to educate and urge policymakers to take the necessary, long-overdue action to address affordable housing.

Our children need to live in safe, decent, and affordable homes so they can grow, learn, and thrive. A good home is like a vaccine. It gives you resilience and stability. The future of our families, our communities and our nation depends on it.

Dr. Megan Sandel is the associate director of the GROW Clinic at the Boston Medical Center, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health and a co-lead principal investigator with Children’s HealthWatch. She is also a nationally recognized expert on housing and child health and development.