It is well documented that poor health is made worse by unstable housing. But research suggests there are significant opportunities to improve individuals’ health outcomes by improving their housing choices.
That was the focus of a recent panel discussion presented at the Fourth Annual Summit for George Washington University’s Rodham Institute. Practitioners, researchers, and policy experts gathered at THE ARC, located just a mile from the District of Columbia’s only government-owned, safety net hospital and within a stone’s throw of two redeveloped public housing projects.
The “Opportunities at the Nexus of Health and Housing” panel held on October 21 featured District of Columbia Housing Authority’s Executive Director, Adrianne Todman along with leading experts and Senior Fellow, Sue Popkin from the Urban Institute.
“Once you remove the barrier of affordable housing, you can work with families on a variety of other platforms, including health,” said Todman.
Popkin pointed to a recent study that supports what many already suspect: children who would be homeless without supportive housing programs gain economic stability and maintain their health because of public housing and voucher programs. Both Todman and Popkin agree that individuals living in poverty have a greater chance of success when they also live in resource-rich neighborhoods.
“Where you live matters in terms of food insecurity and the kinds of economic pressure that force kids into expedited adulthood,” Popkin said.
Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Research Assistant Professor, Sabriya Linton, another panelist, studied Atlanta neighborhoods. Her research showed adults’ rate of sexually transmitted diseases and mental health issues dropped after they relocated to communities where the average median income was significantly higher than their previous community.
The panel included Director of Special Projects with Enterprise Community Partners, Vrunda Vaghela, who noted that these revelations have national implications. She said there are many opportunities to increase positive health outcomes of families eligible for subsidized housing programs. She shared preliminary data from her work that suggests families living in affordable housing paired with health care services saw their emergency room visits, medical expenditures, and primary care costs drop significantly within one year.
Todman reminded the audience that not everyone has the ability to just move to a better neighborhood. In her role as a leader in preserving housing options for the poor, she has partnered with the Urban Institute and other organizations to determine best practices in improving access to quality health programing and services within DCHA communities, especially senior and disabled properties “to create successful living solutions.”
However, each panelist acknowledged the lack of funding to support the types of initiatives that don’t often fit neatly in traditional housing--or health-focused programming. Although the data show these interventions greatly improve the quality of health for low-income individuals, without dedicated funding sources there is no way to sustain the efforts over time.
“We are simply not federally funded for it,” said Todman, who suggested more interest from the philanthropic and health communities would be beneficial.
National Housing Conference Senior Research Associate Janet Viveiros, another panelist, said investing in neighborhoods is difficult but being able to have wellness centers within affordable housing does have “a great return on the investment.” Her organization is looking at ways to use Medicaid or other insurance programs to make that investment.
Vaghela praised the Rodham Institute for creating the space to have this discussion and she said that this panel is one way to create the dialogue necessary to create common ground between the housing and health communities. But she added much more education is needed on both sides.
Wrapping the discussion, Todman challenged the audience and fellow panelists: “Let’s use this information for good.”