Did you know that housing is a social determinant of health? Where you live has a direct effect on overall health and life expectancy. Living in a safe and healthy home promotes good physical and mental health. Conversely, not having access to safe and affordable housing can lead to chronic physical and mental health issues, injuries, and decreased development in children. Low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have poorly maintained and older housing stock in which housing conditions can be detrimental to health.
The Center’s 2015 Analysis of Impediments to Housing demonstrated that Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the nation. People of color overwhelmingly live in low-income areas in Connecticut, and these areas also tend to have an over-concentration of affordable housing. In fact, according to the Connecticut Data Collaborative, people of color are nearly three times more likely to rent than white people and live in racially segregated urban neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment. This uneven distribution of affordable housing prevents the mobility of low-income residents, furthering segregation and reducing access to healthy housing.
Ultimately, poor housing quality leads to environmentally acquired disabilities including asthma, acute lead/carbon monoxide poisoning, and heart disease, all of which reduce life expectancy and have a disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income renters.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there are three aspects of housing that connect to health:
- the physical conditions of the home;
- the conditions of the neighborhood; and,
- housing affordability.
Physical Conditions in the Home
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services there are a variety of ways that home design can influence conditions and housing quality affecting both mental and physical health. Inadequate conditions, which include the presences of lead, mold, asbestos, and other harmful conditions are known to cause negative health outcomes, both in the short and long-term. The following are just a few examples of the ways in which the physical conditions of a home can impact health.
- Lead exposure: even at low levels, lead can have irreversible and adverse health effects on children, including by impacting the nervous system and cognitive development.
- Lack air conditions/heating: cold living conditions are associated with high blood pressure and other respiratory illnesses.
- Mold: whether from water leaks or other sources, mold in the home has consistently been shown to impact respiratory health and increase the onset of asthma, coughing, and wheezing.
Black and Hispanic children are respectively 5.5 and 4.5 times more likely to go to the emergency room because of asthma compared to their white peers. Black children (2.6 times), Hispanic children (2.2 times), and Non-Hispanic Asian children (2 times) are more likely to be poisoned by lead compared to non-Hispanic white children.
Conditions of the Neighborhood
The Connecticut Health Foundation states that neighborhood resource availability, including ability to afford healthy food, access to stable housing, and transportation influence health. They note that there are significant racial and ethnic gaps in access to these resources. A 2018 survey of Connecticut residents indicated:
- Black and Hispanic residents were more than 20% less likely than white residents to have regular access to a car when they need it.
- Black residents were nearly 15% more likely and Hispanic residents nearly 20% more likely than white residents to be unable to afford groceries for their family.
- Black and Hispanic residents were nearly twice as likely as white residents to report not feeling safe to go on a walk in their neighborhood.
- Black and Hispanic residents were more than twice as likely than white residents not to have enough money to provide adequate housing for their families.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides the following examples for how neighborhood conditions, including physical, social and economic, can impact mental and physical health. Neighborhood-wide residential deterioration has been shown to lead to negative mental health consequences. Neighborhood conditions that can lead to short and long-term health consequences include:
- Environmental conditions (e.g., proximity to sources of pollution like highways and factories, noise levels)
- Access to public transportation
- Access to law enforcement
- Access to schools
These conditions ultimately exacerbate the health disparities found in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Typically, housing is considered affordable when the renter is paying less than 30% of their income toward their residence. However, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition on average around 50% of Connecticut residents surveyed are housing cost burdened – in other words, half of Connecticut residents spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Additionally, most extremely low-income households are housing cost burdened and the majority are extremely housing cost burdened. These statistics are similarly high for very low-income households. Skyrocketing rents and limited rental availability following the pandemic make it even more difficult for families to find and keep affordable housing. This shortage of affordable housing options often leaves low-income families with substandard housing in unsafe neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and limited resources that promote health (e.g., access to parks, bike paths, recreation facilities).
Furthermore, being housing cost burdened impacts household ability to cover essential expenses. The burden of high housing costs can be so large on low-income households that they have to choose between paying rent or paying for food, heat, healthcare, and other basics needs. A national survey of America’s families found that housing cost burdened low-income families were less likely to have a regular source of medical treatment and more likely to postpone preventive treatment, instead relying on the emergency room for care. The same survey showed that the less affordable housing available, the higher the likelihood for children to have worse health outcomes, increased behavioral problems, and poorer performance in schools.
Access to affordable, safe, and healthy housing is a right, not a privilege. One way that we can look to improve housing conditions and access is by strengthening enforcement of fair housing laws that prohibit racial discrimination and segregation in housing. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center is dedicated to ensuring that all people have equal access to housing opportunities in Connecticut, free from discrimination. Click here to learn more about housing discrimination and your rights as a Connecticut resident.