Alameda County Healthy Home Alliance discuss affordable and healthy housing

Linda Merola, Catherine Bishop, Mark Allen, Nadia Shihab participate in

Linda Merola, Catherine Bishop, Mark Allen, Nadia Shihab participate in "The Nexus between affordable housing and healthy housing" panel discussion

Community advocates came together to participate in a panel discussion focused on the link between healthy and affordable housing in downtown Oakland on Friday.

East Bay Housing Organizations’ 16th Annual Affordable Housing Week began last Friday with a kick-off celebration at Uptown Body and Fender. This year’s event, entitled “Affordable Housing: Building A Movement,” offered a weeklong series of more than 16 presentations, tours and discussions about the benefits and successes of affordable housing in the East Bay area.

As part of the overall program, the Alameda County Healthy Housing Alliance hosted a panel discussion on the topic of the link between healthy housing and federally subsidized affordable housing. Homes that are subsidized by the government must meet health and safety standards in order to remain in these programs. But with the potential loss of access to safe, affordable homes because of expiring state housing bonds, rising rental costs, lost redevelopment housing set-aside funds and the potential cuts to Section 8, a voucher usage program that pays a portion of the housing costs for low-income families, new methods of acquiring and maintaining healthy homes must be found, according to statement sheet prepared for the panel discussion. During the discussion, the panelists raised concerns about low-income residents being exposed to lead as well as allergens and pests because of unsafe living environments.

Moderated by Alameda County Community Development Agency director Mark Allen, the panel included Nabia Shihab from California Partnership Corporation, Catherine Bishop with the National Housing Law Project and Linda Merola of ChangeLab Solutions, an organization which helps train advocates in the field of public health. The panel discussed the supply and demand for healthy, affordable homes for low-income families in the Bay Area, as well as resources for tenants who find themselves in unhealthy environments.

“One of the issues driving their work with the Alameda County Healthy Homes Alliance is the people in low-income communities who are forced to choose between a healthy home and an affordable home,” Allen said.  “It should not be left to an individual to have to make that kind of decision. The government as well as the community has a role to play in terms of ensuring that in fact affordable housing is safe housing and that the safe housing is affordable.”

Today the issue of having a home that is not just affordable but healthy has become increasingly important as more research about lead poisoning and elements in the home that trigger asthma attacks becomes available.  “It’s important that we get the message out that there is a connection between health and housing,” said Julie Twichell, the community education manager at the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, who was attending the panel discussion.

Ninety percent of homes all homes in Oakland have lead-based paint, according to Twitchell. There is also the issue of asthma and asthma triggers such as mold created by moisture intrusion as well as pest infestation, Twitchell said.

As a member of ChangeLab Solutions, Merola attends meetings with the Alameda Healthy Homes Alliance and provides technical support as well as assistance with both legal and policy issues related to improving housing. She started work on the project last fall. As her research progresses, she will be able to evaluate things that have worked well in places around the country and share lessons learned between communities, Merola said.

“There are so many different ways that people’s homes affect their health,” Merola said. “To the extent that we can look at [the] community level about improving those problems, we can really do a lot for families.”

Allen said Merola’s findings will be presented at an upcoming meeting in September and the information will help to facilitate a discussion about ways to work with other organizations to identify safe, healthy homes. Some possible actions, he said, would be launching rental inspection programs that would target areas where egregious problems have been identified. Education and training program for landlords and tenants could also follow this procedure, Allen said.

The Alameda County Community Development Agency could potentially propose a program that would unite building and housing inspectors with public health officials to work together to try to address safety concerns such as moisture intrusion or lead hazards that have particularly adverse affects on small children.

“We are talking about launching something that would educate the landlords as well as educate the tenants on what a healthy home looks like,” Allen said.

This piece has been updated to reflect a name change for the group Public Health Law and Policy to its new name, ChangeLab Solutions.

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