There is ample evidence that where we live impacts our health. Low-income communities have historically been used and abused through government-endorsed discrimination and disenfranchisement. An investment in making affordable housing healthy and energy-efficient adds to the resilience of a community and is an investment in long-term opportunities for residents, while simultaneously saving government dollars and healthcare costs.
In the United States, it is common practice to detect and treat disease in medical settings. Yet the origins of illness can be identified long before someone enters a doctor’s office. An estimated 70 percent of differences in health status are associated with people’s social and physical environment. Building quality housing for low-income communities provides widespread benefits to resident health and opportunity. Developers have an opportunity and obligation to create environments that promote health outcomes for residents through building and community design that facilitate active lifestyles, are accessible for all, and are near public transportation links. Developers should also incorporate adequate ventilation systems and healthy building materials into their projects; establish operations practices, such as green cleaning practices and no-smoking policies; and engage residents to connect them to services and their communities.
Building Materials, Design and Health
One health condition closely linked to housing quality and is asthma. According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Asthma Control Program, asthma costs the United States $56 billion each year in medical costs. Research has shown that asthma is caused by triggers in our surroundings that can be mitigated by reducing potential asthmagens in materials and improving indoor air quality. By appropriately sizing ventilation equipment in homes, developers can reduce the moisture inside dwelling units; thereby reducing the potential health risks caused by mold, not only limited to respiratory issues but also heart disease and some cancers. Installing fans in kitchens and bathrooms to prevent buildup of gasses and moisture contribute to healthier and more comfortable homes.
Healthier flooring alternatives, including linoleum, cork, FSC certified hardwoods, and ceramic or stone tile, reduces the risk of volatile organic compounds, and the collection of dust and other allergens that can cause asthma. Replacing widely used building products, such as formaldehyde-containing insulation and certain types of vinyl, with healthier materials, like Formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation products and natural insulation alternatives like cotton, cellulose and wool, also contribute to a healthier living environment and better moderate indoor temperatures.
In addition to building materials, home design can encourage more active lifestyles that benefit health. Simple strategies to encourage stair usage by making stairways inviting and functional can go a surprisingly long way in encouraging resident activity and cardiovascular health. Residents are also more likely to walk to buy run errands if homes are located in walkable neighborhoods with safe streets designed for pedestrians in mind.
While good home design is improves health, it is also reduces energy costs. Energy efficiency is a simple way to lower energy costs and alleviate the burdens families that already struggle to pay their bills. This is felt most acutely in low-income communities where the percentage of income going towards energy costs are higher. Lower-income households often live in older multifamily buildings in need of repair because of more affordable rent. However, older buildings are not as energy efficient, creating high energy burdens for residents. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), energy-efficiency programs on average save households $100 per month on utility bills. In addition to energy efficient building practices and retrofits, providing information to residents on their own energy costs and consumption through individual metering has been shown to reduce energy use and allow for utility cost savings.
The built and environmental conditions of a home have significant health and economic impacts on households. Planners, developers, and property managers need to incorporate how a home and surrounding community will affect the health and economic outcomes during the planning, design, construction, and post-development phases of a residential building. The more integrated our thinking around housing, health, and economic mobility become, our quality of life only stands to improve.