Science & Policy Update July 2014: The Built Environment

How Un-Affordability Impacts Health
By: Monika Shankar, Health and Environment Associate

According to HUD and DOT’s new Location Affordability Portal (an online tool that assesses the combined housing and transportation costs of specific neighborhoods and addresses), I and the majority of my Highland Park neighbors spend 51% of our incomes on housing and 16% towards transportation, for a combined total of 67% of our earned incomes. With those percentages, we join the other 25.9% of Los Angelinos who spend more than half of our incomes on housing costs, according to a report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. HUD defines affordable as families who pay 30% or less of their income on housing. But what do these numbers have to do with an individual’s health? And how do we start using tools such as the Location Affordability Portal to advance a health promoting agenda?

Many studies point to the fact that un-affordability can lead to health detrimental conditions for both children and adults. Reduced spending on food and health care services is often referenced as one obvious link between housing and health. However, recent studies further unpack these linkages providing us with a richer understanding of how exactly housing un-affordability truly creates detrimental health conditions. For example, a recent report by John Hopkins explores how over-spending on housing impacts children’s cognitive ability. The report states that in cases where families spent more than 50% of their income on housing, kids’ reading and math abilities suffered. Another emerging field explores how un-affordability and residential instability can impact the mental health of various demographic groups (see here and here). These studies and reports are confirming what many grassroots organization are seeing on the ground, which is that experiencing unstable housing conditions, frequently moving, or doubling up in residences can lead to elevated stress levels, depression, and feelings of hopelessness.

To push health-promoting policy solutions, we need both the tools and the data to show why affordable housing is good for the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. PSR-LA utilizes both to advocate at the state and local level for affordable housing as a strategy to promote health. At the state level, we urged our elected leaders to include affordable housing as part of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund investments. As a result, $130 million was allocated to affordable housing and sustainable communities in 2014/15 with 10% going to affordable housing in the future. For a city like Los Angeles which is currently undergoing a massive affordable housing shortage, the creation of affordable housing in communities who need it will be tremendously beneficial to the health and wellbeing of its residents. At the local level, we are advocating for the inclusion of affordable housing in the new Health & Wellness chapter of Los Angeles’ General Plan, which intends to “elevate health as a priority for the City’s future growth and development” by creating and strengthening health-related policies and programs. PSR-LA and our allies are urging the city to include affordable housing in the Health Chapter in order to promote health amongst youth and adults, as well as create social cohesion in communities. If you are interested in getting involved in any of these efforts, contact Monika Shankar at [email protected].

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