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Housing and Public Health

Aug 7, 2022, 07:00 AM

August 7 is Public Health in Housing Day. Around the world, families without decent housing are exposed to greater personal and environmental risks, are less nourished, and have less access to health care, according to the World Health Organization. As many as 1 in 4 people worldwide live in conditions that harm their health and safety.

Social determinants of health are social, economic, political, and environmental conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age. These conditions significantly impact how long a person lives, their quality of life and they contribute to health inequities. An individual’s social and economic barriers to health include things such as housing instability, which is often cited as one of the most important social determinants to a long and prosperous life.

Given a severe lack of affordable housing across the state, many Oregonians face housing challenges. Low-income residents, including those who qualify for the Oregon Health Plan (OHP), may experience homelessness or spend more than half of their income on rent, leaving few resources to meet their other basic needs. According to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), communities of color, particularly African Americans and Native Americans, are much more likely than white Oregonians to experience homelessness and face other housing challenges.

Housing for health?

Substandard and deteriorating housing can contribute to a variety of serious ailments like respiratory diseases, lead poisoning, cancers from toxic materials, neurological disorders, stress, psychological and behavioral dysfunction. For example, it is estimated that as many as 40 percent of asthma cases can be attributed to factors in the home such as molds, pests (like mice or cockroaches), or exposure to chemicals.

Studies show plenty of evidence supporting the direct relationship between a person’s health and whether they have stable housing. This evidence indicates that stable housing, along with some health care services, can result in improved health outcomes, especially in low-income or otherwise challenged populations here in Oregon. In 145 affordable housing properties with integrated health care services, studies show that primary care visits increased by 20 percent, while emergency department visits decreased by 18 percent.

Housing can impact health through four pathways:

  1. stability
  2. affordability
  3. quality and safety, and
  4. neighborhood environment

In today’s value-based care environment, organizations like CareOregon are accountable for improving health outcomes and lowering costs. To achieve these goals with success, organizations need to better understand their patients to address both their clinical and non-clinical needs and find the root causes of health, including patients’ health behaviors, health outcomes, and health costs.

Housing as a social determinant of health

Understanding patients’ social determinants will allow health centers to transform care with integrated services to meet the needs of their patients, address the social determinants that affect their health, and show the value they bring to patients and communities.

Whether providing access to housing, creating a supportive housing environment, or simply expanding the availability of affordable housing to families in impoverished neighborhoods, research shows that housing has critical effects on the health of low income and challenged individuals.

Or another way of putting it is, housing is health.