Housing Issues Affect Community Health


Six months ago, a Housing Resource Specialist joined the staff at Goodhue County Health and Human Services.  While the county department has long helped provide social services and economic assistance, this position is different.   Maddy Schwartz, MPH, is tasked with addressing housing as a public health issue.  The evidence shows that housing affects health outcomes.

The new position is fully funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services called the Community Living Infrastructure Grant.  A Housing Resource Specialist is someone who provides technical assistance and consultation on housing and related resources for government staff, community providers, and advocates.

The goals of this Housing Resource Specialist position are aimed at working collaboratively with housing agencies and stakeholders to increase and improve opportunities for those with disabling conditions and housing instability to live successfully in the community. Schwartz will support some of the great community work already being done in the area of housing in Goodhue County.

When the agency applied for the grant funding for a Housing Resource Specialist, the new position was located in the Public Health Division because housing is important to the health of our communities. The places people live, work, and play that affect health outcomes are called social determinants of health. Where everyone has access to high quality housing, housing they can afford, and access to basic necessities in their neighborhood, it increases both community health and economic stability.

First, an individual’s health is directly impacted by their living space. Maintaining high quality living spaces can prevent against exposures to toxins and allergens. Building structural, electrical, mechanical, and other safety concerns can result in injuries. Substandard housing can contribute to the spread of infectious diseases through crowding, infestations, a lack of safe drinking water, and ineffective waste disposal.

Second, lacking housing stability affects an individual’s physical and mental health. Even those who face short-term housing instability due to moving frequently, couch surfing, and the effects of falling behind on rent are more likely to face poor health outcomes and stress. Populations facing chronic homelessness have higher rates of physical and mental diseases than the general public and are more likely to die at a younger age than the general population.

Finally, neighborhoods impact health. Healthy People 2030 is a plan of action developed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to guide efforts to improve health and quality of life.  Healthy People 2030 says neighborhoods with access to nutritious foods, spaces that promote active living (like sidewalks, bike trails, and parks), safe water, clean air, and a high-quality education impacts health.

Economic stability is another Social Determinant of Health. High costs of housing can reduce economic stability for residents. The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing to be affordable when a family or person spends 30% or less of their annual income on housing. Anyone spending over 30% of their income on housing is considered cost-burdened. Cost-burdened individuals can have difficulties paying for other necessities. The 2020 Comprehensive Housing Needs Analysis for Goodhue County determined an estimated 20% of all owner households and 41% of renter households are considered cost burned in Goodhue County. For lower-income residents, high housing costs make it difficult to spend money on things that promote health.

Some people in our communities are more likely to face housing instability and barriers to home ownership.  This includes people of color and people with disabilities. US Census American Community Survey data and the Wilder Research Minnesota Homeless Study both show people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness in Southeast Minnesota. While approximately 40% of homeless individuals in southeast Minnesota were people of color in 2018, this population only made up approximately 10% of the total population. Additionally, the American Community Survey estimates (2013-2017) show that approximately 76% of white households in Goodhue County own, but the ownership rate drops to 41% for all other races.

The 2018 River Valley Continuum of Care Regional Homelessness Needs Assessment lists mental health problems as the most common type of disability reported for all households experiencing homelessness in the region.  The Comprehensive Housing Needs Analysis estimates that 45% of renter households in Goodhue County are occupied by a person with a disability. Disabilities represented in this analysis included vision impairments, ambulatory limitations, cognitive disabilities, and independent living limitations. This is compared to 30% of owner households occupied by someone with a disability. As household income increases, the percentage of households with a resident with a disability decreases.

Addressing housing inequities in our communities means that we recognize the benefits of all residents having improved outcomes related to health, education, and employment. When families and individuals have a stable home, our residents can focus on building our vibrant communities, seek employment and educational advancements, and make healthy decisions. Because housing is a health issue, we hope to expand the ways in which Goodhue County HHS can support community efforts to address housing needs in our county. 

Goodhue County Housing Resource Specialist, Maddy Schwartz, can be reached at maddy.schwartz@co.goodhue.mn.us.

To learn more, visit Healthy People 2030 at https://health.gov/healthypeople and browse objectives by topic (look for Housing and Homes, and Neighborhood and Built Environment) or view the Comprehensive Housing Needs Analysis for Goodhue County, Minnesota at https://co.goodhue.mn.us/DocumentCenter/View/20298/Goodhue-County-Housing-Study-2020.