Can you think back to the home in which you were raised, or if you moved often to the home you liked the most? Can you envision your favorite spot? Home is often referred to as a sacred place, and, in many languages, the word for home means not just shelter, but warmth, safety and family.
Those who have always lived in adequate housing have likely not seen firsthand the struggles many people in the world endure every day just to survive. Therefore, housing often gets left off the table in the discussion of social concerns because it is a relatively invisible problem.
However, for the 1.6 billion people around the world who lack adequate shelter, stability and permanence are elusive, and the lack of proper housing exacerbates many other problems. Numerous studies have concluded that poverty, inadequate housing and poor health are inextricably connected.
Safe, stable housing, on the other hand, is essential to the healthy growth of children. Boston pediatrician, Dr. Megan Sandel, tells a chilling story of admitting a young girl with asthma to the pediatric ICU. The child’s asthma condition had previously been pretty well controlled, so Dr. Sandel kept asking the family what was different. It became clear that one of the changes in the child’s environment was that the family had acquired a cat – even though the little girl was allergic to cats. Why? Because they found a mouse in her bed. So the family was left with what Dr. Sandel called an incredible devil’s choice. Acquiring the cat likely resulted in the child ending up in the hospital.
The doctor said no amount of medication she could offer would make it safe to send the child back to the unhealthy place in which she lived. The prescription Dr. Sandel wanted to write was for a healthy home, which is like a vaccine that provides both immunity and resilience.
“A safe home can prevent mental health and developmental problems, a decent home may prevent asthma or lead poisoning, and an affordable home can prevent stunted growth and unnecessary hospitalizations,” she said.
It is not a huge leap to see the connection between stable housing and education as well. Overcrowding, inadequate light, leaky pipes and deteriorating walls at home make it difficult to concentrate. A MacArthur Foundation report said that when families lived in poor quality housing, adolescents showed lower reading and math skills in standardized achievement tests. A safe, quiet place to study, however, creates not only an environment in which one can learn, but also a space in which to plan and dream.
In many cases, homeownership also positively influences family income and spending habits. When families pay less for housing, they have more to spend on essentials, and they are able to save more. Adults often increase their own levels of education and find better jobs when they buy a home.
In addition, homeownership has been linked to a willingness to work together with neighbors to achieve a common goal and to spark greater civic participation.1
On a broader scale, housing is critical to community health. Investing in affordable housing attracts new businesses, creates jobs and, many times, makes communities safer. When these investments are absent, communities struggle and the ripple effect is devastating. Eventually, those ripples affect everyone.
The housing crisis has made it abundantly clear that affordable housing is not someone else’s problem. Foreclosed and vacant properties drained the life out of neighborhoods and surrounding communities in the U.S. Around the world, many countries are struggling with a housing shortage as poverty rates rise. Many people are beginning to take notice of the housing crisis for the first time because their adult children cannot afford a decent place to live.
We cannot allow affordable housing to continue to be an invisible issue. The reality is that if children don’t live in decent homes, the odds of them staying healthy plummet. If they’re not healthy, they don’t get educated; and if they don’t get an education, they don’t get decent jobs, meaning they won’t be able to care for their families or break out of the stranglehold of poverty.
At Habitat for Humanity, we see repeatedly how adequate and affordable shelter creates stability that launches families into a promising cycle of possibilities and progress. However, all housing must be set in the context of community, involving many people and organizations.
It will take more people calling upon more decision makers to find ways to bring together the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to find solutions for the housing challenges we face. More individuals, businesses, government leaders and organizations must become advocates so the need for affordable housing cannot be ignored.
1. Kim R. Manturuk, Mark R. Lindblad, and Roberto G. Quercia, A Place Called Home: The Social Dimensions of Homeownership (Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 138.