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Health and housing: A vital collaboration

3/9/2017

Gloria Ortiz-Fisher, Executive Director, Westside Housing Organization

Challenge: Illness and injury are often the result of household hazards that can be addressed through basic repairs. Though Westside Housing had the skills and resources necessary to complete quality home repairs, it lacked the know-how and funding to pursue a healthy homes strategy.

A little girl approaches a tire swing on a playground with a yellow slide

Studies demonstrate that an unhealthy home environment can lead to illness and injury, particularly in demographic groups that spend a majority of their time indoors, such as seniors and children. Common environmental hazards include exposure to lead, which can result in developmental delays, speech delays, kidney problems and even death. Indoor exposure to radon, mold, pests, tobacco smoke, water leaks, drafts and asbestos can result in respiratory illness, allergies, poisoning or immune-compromised conditions. A 2011 study that looked at the impact to low-income children with asthma of home-based environmental intervention and education found significant caregiver-reported reductions in pediatric asthma severity.

The negative effects of unhealthy housing are disproportionately felt by low-income people and people of color who often live in aging homes and in neighborhoods in need of investment. The demographic groups most at risk of illness are children below the age of six and pregnant women, those living below the poverty line or in older housing and children of color. While healthy home interventions, such as minor home repairs, can reduce and prevent illness, low-income people often lack the means to pay for repairs and may experience a financial crisis when home maintenance is required for larger home systems such as heating/cooling, windows or plumbing.

A woman wearing a blue shirt and red gloves plants a treeThough Westside Housing's core competency includes quality home repairs, the organization lacked the know-how and funding to pursue a healthy homes strategy without collaboration from healthcare organizations. Recognizing that Westside's mission and strength is in affordable and healthy homes, we were confident that, with the guidance and financial support of a healthcare practitioner, Westside Housing could play an essential part in improving health for low-income people.

Westside Housing pursued strategic partnerships with local healthcare organizations that are also committed to holistic and equitable approaches to home-based health interventions. Westside Housing has collaborated with the Kansas City Health Department around such initiatives as lead safe homes, smoke-free homes and healthier communities through urban gardening. Through Westside Housing's relationship with Children's Mercy Hospital, our staff received training on conducting healthy home assessments aimed at identifying household hazards that impact children. We have subsequently repaired dozens of homes for low-income families with children ages six and under in the greater Kansas City area.

Though this work is fairly new to the organization, we are confident that healthy housing sits at the center and forefront of our mission. The connection between housing and healthcare is essential to restoring equity in the neighborhoods we serve and to meeting the mandate of our mission to build robust, sustainable communities. Healthy homes work is not incidental to our mission; it is our mission. We are confident that healthy housing will be a focus for affordable housing, healthcare and governmental organizations over the long-term.

Westside Housing's experience demonstrates that partnerships with healthcare organizations can significantly expand the knowledge and resources available to affordable housing practitioners. Westside Housing's staff received healthy homes assessment training at no cost from Children's Mercy Hospital, and uses Kansas City Department of Health funding for lead abatement work and other healthy homes repairs. Healthy housing work also opens up new venues for philanthropic support. Instead of seeking support from funders whose singular interest is in affordable housing, Westside Housing is now pursuing support from healthcare sources, which may prove to be a significant opportunity over the long run.

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