Housing, Hazards and Health: Considerations and Approaches in Light of COVID-19 

August 11, 2020 - (7 min read)

With children and families spending more time inside their residences due to COVID-19, having a healthy house is especially critical during this public health crisis. A healthy house not only allows children and families to shelter in place and social distance safely from the virus, but also serves as a platform for providing supportive services to improve the health of vulnerable populations such as individuals with disabilities, chronic health conditions such as asthma and elderly family members. Acting as a platform for providing supportive services, a healthy house is free of toxins and hazards, which enables families residing in them to safely live, learn, work, and play inside their homes.

The sad reality is that too many families, prior to COVID-19 and now, live in homes that endanger their health because of the presence of toxic lead paint, mold, pests, leaks, or poor ventilation. These hazards can create health conditions for adults and young children that worsen over time, especially when combined with prolonged exposure to poor housing quality, concentrated poverty, and other such psychosocial and environmental stressors.

Due to residential segregation, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) families reside in segregated neighborhoods that are more isolated – having less access to quality employment and education opportunities. More BIPOC families also reside in communities with higher concentrations of poverty and lower housing quality than their White counterparts. Additionally, when compared to White households, BIPOC households have less access to loans for home repairs and health coverage.

How are cities responding?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased exposure to health hazards have been compounded by reduced inspections and repair services, and more service cuts are on the horizon as city budgets come under strain. To make matters worse, cities are anticipating a budget shortfall between 2020 and 2022 that amount to more than $360 billion in lost revenue. A recent survey by the National League of Cities found that 24% of cities are making cuts to community and economic development programs and 13% of cities are making cuts to code inspection, planning, and permitting services. Yet, despite these challenges, local leaders are protecting their residents’ health by improving housing conditions.

In Baltimore, MD, the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative brought together world-class healthcare partners such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, other community partner service organizations and philanthropic collaborations to safely provide resources to serve the needs of their most vulnerable clients. Through the safe delivery of food and supplies, installation of healthy home kits, check-in calls with clients and older adults, and virtual housing assessments, the City of Baltimore and its partners are deploying staff and critical resources to meet the current challenges posed by the pandemic. This gives low-income communities of color, who are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy housing, the opportunity to live safely in their homes until this crisis ends.

As part of the city of Brooklyn Center, MN’s performance-based licensing system, more frequent inspections are required for units that performed poorly on previous inspections and less frequent inspections for units that perform well (inspections every six months versus every few years.) In response to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the city halted all inspections that were not critical to life and safety and carried out virtual inspections as needed. All rental license expiration dates were pushed back 90 days to account for the paused inspections. One of the biggest needs to emerge during the pandemic is assistance with rent payments. Accordingly, the city worked with a local non-profit and Hennepin County to provide Rental Assistance. As the city has begun to re-open, rental inspection has resumed with property PPE guidelines in place.

In Syracuse, NY, the city’s Permit Office did not close during the pandemic, instead, the office pivoted to adopt new practices. Many permitting services remained active, including essential inspections, commercial building inspections, and electrical permit inspections. The city has adapted to provide virtual inspections and digital plan review and has moved many other services online to meet constituent needs. The office has also adjusted building operations and mechanical systems for safety during COVID-19 — the city is using the guidelines released by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the International Code Council.

What’s Next for Cities?

As cities continue to adjust to their new normal, now more than ever cities need to ensure each resident has a safe, quality, and affordable place to live.

Our recommendations to cities include:

Deploy an equity-centered, code enforcement response. Used to support the life, safety, and health of their residents, code enforcement should bolster interactions between renters and landlords to increase communications. With millions of renters cost-burdened and impacted by COVID, code enforcement officers can assist with mitigating issues between renters and landlords by leveraging support networks and resources such as legal aid, rental assistance, and mediation services. Code enforcement can also deploy a comprehensive response to assist property owners and landlords. Instead of issuing fines and court summons, code enforcement officers can make property owners and landlords aware of resources such as home repair and lead hazard reduction grants to bring their property into compliance. Therefore, citations, fines, and court summons would be utilized as a last resort unless the property is negatively impacting or decreasing the quality of life of the community.

Support financing approaches to support healthy housing interventions. Utilize CDBG funding, philanthropic, or general fund dollars to develop or bolster healthy housing interventions to address both code violations, health and safety hazards, and/or augment and facilitate data collection to best deploy existing assets and resources.

Foster stronger partnerships between the housing and health sectors. Extensive research has demonstrated the link between housing and health and how housing affordability, quality, and neighborhood conditions shape the physical, mental, and social health and well-being of residents. To begin to eliminate disparities in housing and health, it is important for cities as well as the health sector to champion a stronger working relationship to raise awareness about the linkages of housing and health to facilitate deeper engagement with partners and residents to eliminate inequities.

Apply for the recently released HUD 2020 Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Grant Program NOFA. Through the program, lead grant and Healthy Homes Supplemental funding are available for state, county, and city jurisdictions. Participating jurisdictions will be awarded funds to conduct lead hazard reduction and healthy homes interventions for low-income families. Applications are due August 24, 2020, and both new and existing grantees are encouraged to apply.

Join NLC’s Healthy Housing Learning Lab. The Healthy Housing Learning Lab provides cities the opportunity to connect with peer cities on ways to protect residents from health hazards in their homes.

To work towards true equity of opportunity for all their residents, specifically Black, Indigenous and People of Color families that are disproportionately affected by poor housing conditions, it is important that housing programs, plans, and strategies to incorporate anti-discriminatory, anti-displacement policies that directly address racial inequalities. Approaching housing issues with a more holistic health-focused lens with all be crucial for the future of communities.

About the Authors:

Anne Li is a program specialist in the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Lauren Lowery is the program director for housing & community development at the National League of Cities.