Unaffordable Housing Really Could Make You Sick

Center Post

Recent research suggests that making sure low-income Americans have an affordable place to live can contribute to meeting the nation’s health reform goals. 

Alisha Sanders, of the LeadingAge Center for Housing Plus Services maintains that Housing Plus Services models can do even more to help low-income renters manage their care and avoid using unnecessary, high-cost services.

A recent study out of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that hospital admissions for hypoglycemia were 27% higher for low-income people at the end of the month compared to the beginning. The rate didn’t change for higher income people.

Researchers suggest this increase might occur because poorer people run out of money for food at the end of the month. Several factors can cause hypoglycemia. One of them is not eating enough.

This reminded me of a finding in a recent report on America’s rental housing from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Researchers found that when low-income households pay excessive proportions of their income for housing, they have less money to spend on other necessities like food. Severely cost-burdened renters in the lowest income quartile (annual income >$15,000) spend about $130 less per month on food than other renters living in affordable housing.

That $130 figure represents a substantial amount of food. As the UCSF study indicates, not having that food in the grocery cart can have potentially substantial implications for low-income renters.

The Housing Connection

According to the Joint Center’s study, the share of cost-burdened renters has continued an uphill march and is at an all-time high. In 1960, about 1 in 4 renters paid more than 30% of their income for rent, the traditional measure of affordability. In 2010, 1 in 2 renters found themselves in that precarious position. Not surprisingly, the lowest-income renters are the most cost-burdened:

  • 83% of renters with incomes less than $15,000 were cost burdened.
  • 71% of these renters were severely cost-burdened, meaning that they spent more than 50% of their income on housing.

Unfortunately, the scale of the need far outstrips the resources available to assist cost-burdened renters. In 2011, only 24% of income-eligible renters received assistance.

The Senior Connection

Over the coming decade, says the Joint Center, rapid growth in the senior population will lead to an additional surge in demand for affordable housing. With the aging of the baby boomers, the center predicts the number of renters 65+ will increase by 40% and will account for nearly half of all growth in renter households.

Given the information I shared about the economic status of seniors in an earlier blog, this means that the need and eligibility for affordable rental opportunities and assistance will likely soar.

The Affordable Housing Plus Services Connection

Multiple health reform efforts are currently trying to drive better health care management and eliminate unnecessary utilization. The findings from UCSF and Harvard suggest that making sure low-income Americans have an affordable place to live can help us meet those health reform goals.

Aside from providing a safer and more stable environment in which to manage health needs, affordable housing simply leaves more money in renters’ pockets to pay for life necessities.

The UCSF study shows the potential and costly downstream impact of not having enough money for basics like food. The average income of Section 202 residents in 2006 was around $875 per month. Even with rental assistance, that doesn’t leave too much for other life expenses. (Imagine if you didn't have assistance.)

Fortunately, many affordable housing properties help connect residents with resources that can help stretch their limited dollars, such as energy assistance or congregate meals programs. These communities also provide a platform for organizing a range of other health and supportive services that can help residents address their health and long-term care needs.

Given that people living in affordable housing settings are prone to poorer health by virtue of their demographics, Housing Plus Services models offer a promising way to help members of an at-risk population manage their care and avoid using unnecessary, high-cost services.