The National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy offers a comprehensive plan to increase the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. A cornerstone of the Strategy is that it recognizes that good health comes not just from quality medical care, but also from the conditions we face where we live, learn, work and play—such as healthy homes, clean water and air and safe worksites. The strategy was developed by the National Prevention Council, which is composed of 17 federal agencies including the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and others.
As the Strategy is rolled out, NewPublicHealth will be speaking with Cabinet Secretaries, Agency directors and their designees to the Prevention Council about their prevention initiatives. Follow the series here.
This week, NewPublicHealth spoke with Estelle Richman, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
NewPublicHealth: Why was it important for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be involved in the development of National Prevention Strategy?
Estelle Richman: HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and affordable housing for everyone. HUD is more than bricks and mortar. We need to get away from thinking that housing is just about putting a roof over your head. It’s your home, and your family’s health and safety and your children’s education are all dependent on where that home is. HUD views housing as a platform for improving a wide range of outcomes.
That’s what makes HUD dovetail perfectly with the National Prevention Strategy; the whole concept of affordability of housing and the quality of neighborhoods and the understanding of that influence on health. HUD invests about $50 billion annually on affordable housing and community development and these investments impact health. We don’t do it alone and none of our partners can do it alone. But together we can bring significant experience and expertise to the table so that we can truly mitigate and help prevent health hazards.
NPH: What approach is HUD taking to address the challenges of health related to housing?
Estelle Richman: One of the most obvious places where we make a substantial difference is the physical environment of housing, including a focus on lead-based paint hazards, mold and pests and all the many things that contribute to respiratory disease, allergies and other illnesses.
Another factor not always immediately connected is housing affordability and health. Many households are now paying more than 60 percent of their income in order to remain in their homes. And if you’re paying a huge amount of your income just to pay your rent or your mortgage, then you’re cutting something else—such as food, health care, medicine and transportation. That puts people at risk for both physical and mental health problems. Children in families that have been behind on rent are more likely to be in poor health, have increased risk of developmental delays and suffer from food insecurity than children whose families are stably housed.
NPH: What are some of HUD’s key initiatives in helping to foster sustainable, healthy communities?
Estelle Richman: We know that physical and mental health depends on sustainable and economically vital neighborhoods where we have access to transportation, good schools, safe places for children to play and places to go shopping for healthy and wholesome foods.
HUD’s Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program has shown that moving to better neighborhood environments is associated with improved mental and physical health for adults, lower rates of extreme obesity, lower rates of diabetes, less psychological stress and less major depression for adult women. So being able to stabilize where you live and the quality of your housing can make a difference.
We’re trying to reach some of these same goals through our Choice Neighborhoods Program, which is part of a partnership between HUD, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Treasury. Choice Neighborhoods actually builds on the success of Hope VI, which was begun in the 1990s and was set up to transform some of the worst public housing by developing mixed-income communities. In Philadelphia, for example, when they were able to switch to Hope VI, you saw a distinctive change in those neighborhoods. Schools got better, neighborhood stores moved in, transportation became more accessible. When we talk about Choice Neighborhoods now, we consider employment assets, quality education, and a wider range of stakeholders, including nonprofits, private firms, local government and public housing authorities.
NPH: What changes can be made to housing and home standards to help improve home and neighborhood safety?
Estelle Richman: We believe the home environment is a major influence on health and well-being and that threats to housing quality include everything from excess moisture, mold, allergens, and poor indoor air quality, to structural deficiencies and lead contamination.
NPH: And what is the approach to minimizing risks such as lead poising from lead-based paint?
Estelle Richman: Our Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control is looking at this. We know that housing that was built before 1978 may have lead-based paint, with homes built before 1940 having the highest levels of lead in paint. So it really doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars—if you’re living in a house built before 1978, the odds that there’s lead somewhere in that house is high enough that everyone needs to be concerned about their children. So the standard has to be set high enough that we protect everyone.
NPH: What is HUD doing in the area of secondhand smoke in homes and who are your partners?
Estelle Richman: That is a big agenda items for many divisions of the Department.
Our partners in this are the Housing Authorities, some of the landlords, and just about anyone else who’ll talk to us. My best example of this is the Boston Housing Authority, which is on track to now to implement a total smoke-free policy this fall. They found that their asthma rates were twice as high as those for residents living in non-subsidized housing. They have done a lot of work over the last several years educating themselves, their clients, and offering folks as much support as possible to stop smoking, and now they’re ready to implement a smoke-free policy.
There are several other cities that have announced that they are looking at instituting smoke-free policies—San Antonio, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon and all of the housing authorities in the State of Maine are among them. We’re offering whatever technical assistance we can to help them do it. We’re working in partnership with HHS, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Lung Association and trying to gather many other community supporters.
As we push, I think we will always find folks who believe that they want to continue to smoke, but we’re also finding that there are many people who are ready for smoke-free policies in their housing.
NPH: What are some current efforts of working across sectors to improve housing and better health in that housing?
Estelle Richman: Our Section 811 Project Rental Assistance Demonstration Program is a rental demonstration program to provide housing for people who have disabilities. It provides $85 million in funding to state housing agencies and other appropriate entities to provide long-term housing rental assistance for approximately 2,800 people. Many of these folks will have physical disabilities and will often need assistant care or assistive technology in order to live in the housing, which means that most of them will also be involved with the state Medicaid Agency, as well as their state Health and Human Services Agency.
To develop the program we worked hand in hand with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. I can’t tell you the number of positive emails I received. People were anxiously awaiting it. It is fully integrated with non-disabled populations, which was critical to the disabled community. To be a part of the program, a state housing agency must partner with the state Medicaid agency to submit a grant. So this is a true partnership. It’s integrated housing, it’s supportive housing and it helps get people out of institutions.
NPH: What are examples of partnerships you have within the Federal government?
Estelle Richman: We meet with our partners at HHS every week. We talk about our joint projects and about projects that we would like to work on together. We’re also a very strong partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). You may know that we’re working with the VA around eliminating veterans' homelessness by 2015. There is also an HHS part of it so that we can know that our veterans who are coming home not only have good health care, but they also have a place to live. As I’ve said, we all have to have partners and it is, in essence, the core of that partnership that helps us make progress. The National Prevention Council has actually brought these partners together and I credit them for being part of what keeps us working together. It’s very easy in some of these very large bureaucracies to drift off and do your own mission and I think one of the things the National Prevention Council does is help us all realize that we all share prevention, we all work on it together.
NPH: What are some of the other critical partners in communities?
Estelle Richman: In any level of government, the level you need to get to is the level of where the people are. So you need to get down to neighborhoods, you need to get to communities and when you go down in communities, you really need to talk to your hospital and health care systems, community neighborhood groups, schools and PTAs. Also what rises to the top of the page real quickly is transportation. If you have not figured out how to get transportation as a partner then you’re going to have a hard time getting prevention, promotion and health care to work outside the city center.
Each community is different. You need to talk to the folks and get a feel for what’s going to make a difference in that particular community.
NPH: Tell us about the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.
Estelle Richman: It is a multi-partner collaboration among HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. These two agencies have not always been traditional partners for HUD. Through the Partnership, we are coordinating federal housing, transportation, and environmental investments and looking at things like water infrastructure, roads, sidewalks, transit lines, and job creation opportunities as all of those things are necessary for a healthy and vibrant community life. Several of the Sustainable Communities grant recipients are partnering with the public health sector, including in conducting health impact assessments, increasing access to fresh foods, and encouraging active living that includes opportunities for exercise in one's daily commute and routine. They’re realizing that to improve public health, it’s critical to actually support and create the communities that are not only going to be economically sustainable, but that also maximize environmental, energy-efficient and socially sustainable design and development strategies.
NPH: What had the National Prevention Council brought to the table that was not there before?
Estelle Richman: When you have an initiative like the National Prevention Council, you set goals, you set measurable outcomes and you also have skin in the game of what the big group is doing. You’re held accountable, but you’re asking to be held accountable. And it’s not accountable to your silo, it’s accountable to the larger group.
And I think it’s that choice of accountability to the larger group for health care that affects all of us. The concern about health care is not an issue just for struggling families or folks in foreclosure or families that are in the lower incomes. Health care is something we are all concerned about. In the end, it holds us all accountable for better communities.