Housing Quality and Health: Revealing the Connections, Addressing the Challenges (Part 5)

Housing Quality and Health: Revealing the Connections, Addressing the Challenges (Part 5)

August 2021
Don Bianchi & Elana Brochin

Revitalize CDC in Springfield improves housing conditions by performing assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma to safely remain in their home. (Photo credit: Revitalize CDC)

MACDC has long supported its members in their work to improve housing quality. In recent years, MACDC worked with it's members to establish health equity work as a defining characteristic of the contemporary community development movement in Massachusetts. We are now in the beginning stages of an initiative to link these two strands of our work. We would like to engage with as many stakeholders as possible in this process, and, therefore, are publishing this series of blog posts to share out ideas and get your feedback.

Data, Dollars, and Direction

In our first blog in this series, we identified housing quality and safety challenges that plague the Massachusetts housing stock. In our second blog post we examined the ways these challenges directly impact individual and community health outcomes. The third blog in our series examined current Massachusetts programs that address property-level distress. Our fourth, and most recent blog, focused on current efforts to address two broader factors: neighborhood disinvestment and climate change. In this last blog in our series, we will:
  • Surface gaps in existing efforts and propose ways to scale up efforts to improve housing quality and safety, and therefore health outcomes, in Massachusetts.
  • Advocate for an infusion of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for this important work.
Gaps and Ways to Scale Up Efforts
While there are many initiatives that support housing quality and safety challenges in Massachusetts, there is no coordinated approach, and these efforts lack the scale we need to address the problems. In order to increase the capacity of state and local governments, CDCs, housing courts, and others to successfully improve the safety and quality of older homes across the state, we need to fill existing gaps and scale up our efforts in the following areas:
  • Streamlined and publicly accessible data on housing quality and safety throughout the Commonwealth. For example, we need to have accurate and timely data on the number of homes in MA that still are not lead-safe.
  • Timely data on the impact of existing policy interventions to address housing quality.
  • Demographic data that indicates which populations are most impacted by poor housing quality, including people of color, immigrants, children, elderly, disabled and specific neighborhoods or communities.
  • Data that will help inform decisions by helping both policymakers and advocates to fully understand the gaps.
  • Increased public and private investment in home-specific housing rehabilitation, lead paint abatement, and addressing other housing quality concerns.
  • Increased public and private investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy and building decarbonization, which will:
  1. improve housing quality and lower costs for residents of older homes; and 
  2. contribute to urgent efforts to combat the climate crisis.
  • Increased funding for neighborhood-scale initiatives to address vacant and distressed housing.
  • Better alignment of different funding streams from the housing, energy and health sectors so property owners and public housing authorities can leverage dollars and undertake comprehensive renovations at one time. 
  • Formation of a Task Force comprised of a broad array of public, private, nonprofit, and community members to set goals and monitor progress around housing safety and quality in Massachusetts.
  • Incorporation of housing quality improvements into our long-term resiliency strategy to ensure that our most vulnerable communities are protected from the impacts of climate change, extreme weather, flooding, etc., and development of mitigation plans in advance of when disasters occur.
  • Streamlined systems for integrating housing, energy, climate and health programs and dollars into a coordinated property improvement strategy.
  • Neighborhood and community-level initiatives to address property distress, abandonment, and disinvestment.
  • Engagement of the health sector, including hospitals, to:
  1. champion the effectiveness of healthy housing programs on impacting patient health outcomes; and
  2. implement and support healthy housing programs as part of their Community Health Improvement Plans and Community Benefits programs.
  • Development of policies and tools to ensure that improved housing quality does not lead to escalating rents and displacement.
When utilizing these strategies, we suggest using and improving upon the framework of the existing programs when possible. This includes:
  • Increasing funding for effective programs, such as the State’s Get the Lead Out (GTLO) Program.
  • Ensuring that available programs and funding are accessible to all populations. For example, we should be using and strengthening the infrastructure of community-based organizations which provide support to individuals and families facing language and other barriers.
These strategies, by definition, must be adopted by a wide range of players to be successful. 
MACDC will continue to leverage our role as a thought-leader in the Community Development field and our deep relationships with our members to embed housing quality and health equity work into the fabric of the CD movement. 
Use of American Rescue Plan Act Funding
One crucial and timely opportunity to jumpstart a large-scale effort to improve the Massachusetts housing stock is to use funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). This is a once in a generation opportunity to address longstanding housing quality and safety problems in Massachusetts. Massachusetts and local jurisdictions expect to receive $8.7 billion in funds from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, established by ARPA. The Governor has proposed spending $1 billion on housing (evenly split between home ownership and rental housing), which MACDC supports. The Legislature needs to build upon the Governor’s baseline proposal by devoting additional funding to improve the quality and safety of Massachusetts’ housing stock. 
As we’ve established in our previous blogs, the presence of lead, poor indoor air quality, and other substandard housing conditions leads to developmental delays in children, respiratory disease, accidents and injuries, and spread of infectious disease, among other serious, preventable health consequences. Therefore, MACDC is advocating that the Commonwealth devote an additional $100 million from the ARPA funds to improving the existing Massachusetts housing stock, with $50 million devoted to making homes lead safe and $50 million for housing rehab, with a healthy homes focus. We see this commitment as a significant first step toward scaling up efforts to fill the gaps that we have identified.
We look forward to utilizing these tools and to collaborating with our partners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to coordinate initiatives and to improve housing quality in Massachusetts using the Data, Dollars, and Direction framework that we’ve described. Improving housing quality will ultimately provide dignity and physical security to Massachusetts residents and will lead to improved community health outcomes. Devoting $100 million dollars of funding from ARPA will jumpstart these efforts.
While the series of blog posts represents the opinions of and analysis by the authors, our conclusions have been informed by discussions with a working group that we convened to help guide this work. The working group included representatives from the public and nonprofit sectors, each of whom work on and think about housing quality, and health equity, from different perspectives. We owe deep gratitude to each of the members of this working group for their thoughtfulness, engagement, and commitment to this important work.