Building Healthy Homes and Healthy Lives
Habitat Family Selection Criteria: Addressing the connection between health and housing.
From Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County Executive Director John Moon.
Without a safe, decent, affordable home it’s difficult access what so many of us take for granted. Healthcare and education are usually the first to suffer if a family is living in substandard conditions.
Habitat for Humanity is keenly aware of the impacts of inadequate housing on health and this is reflected in our affiliate’s Family Selection Criteria and Qualifications. Many of Habitat’s Selection Criteria focus in on unsafe living conditions such as failing electrical, roof, wall, foundation, plumbing or heating systems. We also look at unhealthy conditions that are a direct result of poverty such as overcrowding. Some children have to share a bedroom with family members of opposite genders or in some cases don’t have a bedroom. Habitat’s Qualification Criteria forgives medical debt because this is often a debt of poverty, and not of choice. Otherwise, Habitat’s lending standards are similar to your bank’s standards. We look for steady income history, faithful repayment of any consumer debt and sensible debt to income ratios.
One of the most important ways to improve both health and education is by keeping shelter affordable. Typically Habitat limits the housing debt to 28% of gross income. This helps assure that there are enough funds for proper nutrition, doctor’s visits and school supplies.
The challenges of keeping a family healthy in unhealthy housing
As an agricultural worker, Julio Ortiz makes barely enough to support his family. And he only gets paid for the days he works. A few stormy days, or a case of the flu could be a financial disaster. His job doesn’t offer health insurance, and he can’t afford it on his own. If Julio or his wife Juana fall ill, “we get nothing,” he says.
Dan VanDyken is another Habitat partner. He has lived through the type of nightmare that Julio and Juana Ortiz try not to think about. Dan had a long career as a construction tradesman, but when he was diagnosed with advanced Crohn’s Disease and suffered several strokes, he was left unable to work, with a mountain of medical bills to pay. No longer able to make rent, he and his wife and grandson were forced to move into a cabin in Glacier.
The VanDykens’ story is not uncommon for low-income Americans. A study by The Access Project, a program of Third Sector New England affiliated with the Schneider Institute for Health Policy at Brandeis University, found that more than a quarter of families with significant medical debt experienced resulting financial problems that made it difficult to find and/or maintain adequate housing for their families.1
And for such families, housing problems only make health problems worse. Now that the VanDykens are wedged into a few hundred square feet of living space, if one family member gets sick, the bug will inevitably and quickly spread.
Because of his Crohn’s, “Dan has no immune system,” his wife Mary says. And Dan isn’t the only family member for whom a common cold can be a major problem: The couple’s grandson, Cody, a third-grader, has asthma.
Studies show that children living in inadequate housing are 10 times more likely than children in good housing to develop asthma and other respiratory problems.2 And research also supports what the VanDykens already know: when people are in crowded conditions they get sick more often. 3
Counting his sister-in-law, who shares their home, Julio Ortiz has a family of seven in his three-bedroom rental house. His wife, Juana, confirms that the any colds the children bring home from school tend to circulate quickly through the house.
In their future Habitat homes, both the VanDykens and the Ortiz family will have a little more space and a better chance to stay healthy.
Julio will go from paying $1,000 per month in rent to writing a mortgage check of just a few hundred dollars. With what he’ll soon have left over from his paycheck, he can afford to consider things that once seemed out of reach: like taking a day off and seeing a doctor when he gets sick.
Citations – Blog Post:
- The Access Project: How Medical Debt Undermines Housing Security. http://www.accessproject.org/adobe/home_sick.pdf
- Lisa Harker, Shelter: http://england.shelter.org.uk/professional_resources/policy_and_research/policy_library/policy_library_folder/chance_of_a_lifetime_-_the_impact_of_bad_housing_on_childrens_lives
- Overcrowding leads to disease transmission: National Institute of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447157/
Citations – Social Media Posts:
Monday – Children, substandard housing and asthma: Lisa Harker, Shelter: http://england.shelter.org.uk/professional_resources/policy_and_research/policy_library/policy_library_folder/chance_of_a_lifetime_-_the_impact_of_bad_housing_on_childrens_lives
Tuesday – Health hazards of substandard housing: National Institute of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447157/
Wednesday – Overcrowding leads to disease transmission: National Institute of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447157/
Thursday – Poverty and inability to take sick leave: The Economic Policy Institute: The Need for Paid Sick Days: http://www.epi.org/publication/the_need_for_paid_sick_days/
Friday – Medical Debt and housing problems: The Access Project: How Medical Debt Undermines Housing Security. http://www.accessproject.org/adobe/home_sick.pdf