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The Link Between Affordable Housing and Health: Perspective from Cynthia Telles

A lack of affordable housing is fueling precipitous increases in homelessness.  The problem is not confined to just to America’s biggest cities; it is a crisis that is rapidly spreading to smaller cities. It is time to sound the alarm.


I sit on the Board of Directors for Kaiser Permanente, the country’s largest fully-integrated health system. Every day, 12.2 million people trust Kaiser Permanente’s top-notch physicians and nurses in matters of life and death.  But, delivering the best care in the industry is not enough to keep anyone healthy if they do not have a roof over their head.

A stable home is the foundation every person needs to thrive.  Likewise, economic opportunity and the availability of stable, affordable and healthy housing are essential to the overall health and well-being of a community.  Having a good job has profound, positive impact on health outcomes. And, it may sound obvious, but in communities where more and better economic opportunities exist, residents are more likely to fulfill their basic human needs, such as having a clean, safe place to live, and regular nutritious meals.  These things are also are strongly associated with good health outcomes.


People who are chronically homelessness have high physical and mental health morbidity and increased mortality rates.  However, poor health outcomes are not exclusive to individuals experiencing homelessness. Those who face housing instability also have poorer health outcomes, too.


Even with a home, those who do not have good economic opportunities are more likely to encounter environmental toxins like lead paint and poor indoor air quality from factors like mold and inadequate heating or cooling — all clearly linked to specific health disorders like asthma or nervous system damage. Meanwhile, financial stress and inadequate access to housing leaves adults particularly vulnerable to poor health.   Housing instability is also associated with health problems among youth, including increased risks of early drug use, depression, and teen pregnancy.


If businesses and policy makers are not deeply moved by the massive number of individuals and families, couch surfing, living in dangerous conditions, sleeping in cars, or unsheltered under cardboard boxes, unwashed and unfed on the streets in America, then they should act because the affordable housing crunch and our national homelessness crisis is hurting businesses, too. Many companies now struggle to hire a workforce that can afford housing. Among families who do not own a home, a growing number cannot afford their monthly rent; one in four of these families are just one paycheck away homelessness. Stable and affordable housing allows low- to moderate-income individuals the opportunity to pursue financial stability, which supports business and economic growth in local communities.  


America, we are in a crisis.  We must act. Without swift action our affordable housing crisis — and the resulting homelessness crisis — will only continue to rise.