Housing and what surround it affect every aspect of life. For many, their zip code determines their life outcomes. Recent research from the National Institutes of Health and the Morehouse School of Medicine shows how “perceived neighborhood problems” negatively affect cellular aging in Black Americans – especially men – making them more susceptible to various cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes. Proximity to education, transportation, healthy food, hazard-free dwellings, healthcare, and jobs matter greatly for health outcomes. Distance from industrial pollution and toxic waste also matter. Goldman Environmental Prize winner Destiny Watford‘s activism, who saved her Baltimore neighborhood from becoming home to the world’s largest trash incinerator, shows how exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution from nearby industrial activity can lead to residential displacement and chronic health issues.
COVID-19 impacts on housing and community health
COVID-19 and the plight of essential workers – many concentrated in black and brown neighborhoods – show that living in areas with low economic opportunity, high racial segregation, sub-standard housing, and overcrowded homes vastly increase transmission and mortality rates. In the U.S., the Black population is 13 percent, yet Black Americans represent nearly a quarter of total COVID-19 deaths. The Latinx community is about 18 percent of the population, yet they also have disproportionate mortality rates, representing nearly one-fifth of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. The place we call home connects to a myriad of other factors determining life outcomes and as a result, the surrounding environment where you live matters.
These health and race trends, as spotlighted during COVID-19, existed before the pandemic arrived. The cautionary case of Flint, MI shows how hazards in the natural and built environment can gravely impact residents’ quality of life. Additionally, a lack of access to health centers or parks, which has been shown to impact social and health determinates, can contribute to these disparities as well.
An American Enterprise Institute study found that low-income and communities of color were less likely to have a high number of amenities such as schools, churches and parks. These health-boosting amenities are often missing in communities of color due to a lack of public and private investment. The Brookings Institute found that Black-owned assets in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000, 23 percent less than non-majority Black neighborhoods. As long as these neighborhoods remain undervalued, the health disparities currently plaguing the country will persist post-pandemic.
Local strategies to alleviate COVID-19 impacts on community and public health
To combat the associated health and housing challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, many cities are evaluating how best to optimize cross-sector partnerships to strengthen crisis response strategies. Access and attainment of quality, affordable housing is a key defense in keeping residents economically stable and minimizing exposure to the coronavirus, but attention is also needed for the built and natural environments within our communities. While cross-sector housing and health partnerships are a long-standing approach in creating healthy living environments, COVID-19 response efforts have pushed cities to strengthen these alliances to provide greater levels of care for community residents during the crisis.
Community Partnerships and Public Health
The Health and Housing Consortia – a sixty member, New York City-based organization of social service, housing and health providers – employed cross-sector learning and collaboration to identify and address service gaps in local housing and health care COVID-19 response strategies. With a sharp focus on assisting those facing housing instability and persons experiencing homelessness, the health and housing consortia provides a model for aligning services to best support cross-sector communication, training and resource development, and research and advocacy initiatives. A pre-established multi-faceted strategy assisted consortia members to efficiently share information and best practices to local providers to provide holistic and timely community care during the first wave of COVID-19.
Relatedly, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services (YNHS), a Yakima, Washington health center and Health Care for the Homeless grantee, leveraged their community partnerships model to bolster a cross-sector COVID-19 response for persons experiencing chronic homelessness. Creating a response model in partnership with the department of human services, municipal agencies, and case management providers positioned YNHS to expand COVID-19 testing and medical quarantine facilities for persons experiencing homelessness who are living in emergency shelters or encampments.
Green Space and Public Health
COVID-19 is also leading cities to consider strategies for equitable access to public green spaces to support mental, physical, and social health. The availability of well-maintained parks is a critical component to a city’s public health infrastructure, yet an estimated 100 million U.S. residents do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk from their home. This disparity is compounded by the reality that parks that serve communities of color are generally half the size and serve roughly five times more people per acre than parks in white, affluent neighborhoods. As cities develop recovery strategies, equitable access to parks and green spaces must be viewed as a priority and not a luxury in future planning endeavors.
What are the next steps for cities?
Knowing the impacts of a neighborhood’s natural and built environment on long-term health outcomes could encourage municipal leaders to take a closer look at their planning and development strategies. City leaders can be intentional in providing transparency and opportunity for engagement when developing community plans and comprehensive strategies. Cities can advance racial and health equity by viewing public health as a spectrum that contains touchpoints that intersect healthcare, housing, nonprofit and government sectors.
Establishing strong cross-sector partnerships can help cities expand their reach when pursuing equitable COVID-19 recovery and response strategies. As funding is a vital variable in sustaining healthy housing and living environments, establishing cross-sector partnerships provides greater opportunity to evaluate avenues for community resource sharing and collaboration to best meet the needs of the residents.
Utilizing these strategies to develop healthy neighborhoods during the COVID-19 Pandemic will help cities, towns and villages protect their most vulnerable residents in the immediate term and start the long work to overcoming the systemic effects of racism within local housing policy and practices.
To learn more, join a collaborative webinar by the City of Baton Rouge, NeighborWorks America, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the National League of Cities on September 30th from 3:00 to 4:00 pm ET. Click here to register.
Alexis Butler is a Senior Program Specialist for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities
Kyle Funk is the Program Specialist for Housing & Community Development, at the National League of Cities
Laura McDaniel is a Program Manager at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families