Substandard housing--housing that is plagued by leaky roofs, broken windows, peeling paint, debris, vermin and injury causing conditions--leads to negative health effects and high social and economic costs for communities, families, and especially children. Health and safety issues from substandard housing disproportionately affect residents who live in older, urban communities. Finding the resources to pay for their correction often poses a financial challenge.
According to a report published by the University of California Berkeley Health Impact Group, substandard housing is associated with increased risk of disease, crime, social isolation, and decreased mental health. Physical deterioration is a contributing factor to substandard housing. A house might, for example, need a new roof. When it rains, the roof might cave in or leak, causing the house to flood or the residents to be injured. This, in turn, creates further hazards if the house is flooded or falling apart. Water damage can also unleash lead that has been safely encapsulated in paint. Some cases of substandard housing are not so visible. Outdated or dangerous electrical systems, rusting or loose pipes, and gas leaks can all pose significant safety hazards that might go unnoticed until an accident happens.
In 2015, more than 3,000 children in New Jersey had high blood lead levels for the very first time. About 225,000 young kids in New Jersey have been poisoned by lead since 2000.
For example, in the 2012-13 school year, 20% of the children entering Irvington Township public school kindergarten class, 15% of Trenton kindergarteners, and 11% of New Brunswick
kindergarteners had levels above the national lead reference level of 5 mg/dl. Children with this amount of lead in their blood are 30% more likely to fail 3rd grade reading and math tests. Lead-poisoned children are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system.
The cost to remediate lead hazards in housing averages between $5,000-$12,000 per unit. The cost not to remediate is $32,000 per year per child. The widespread reduction in lead poisoned children is expected to reduce school discipline problems and costs associated with special education classes, crime, and prison populations. Researchers claim that anywhere between $17 and $50 could be saved in taxes for each $1 spent on lead safe repairs.
Asthma is a serious, sometimes fatal, health condition that disproportionately affects low-income, minority populations. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic childhood illness in America. In New Jersey, 9% of children and adults currently have asthma; 13.6% of adults and 12.2% of children report having had asthma during their lifetime. U.S. school age children miss approximately 12.8 million school days, and adults miss approximately 10.1 million workdays each year due to asthma. Research shows that roughly 20-30% of asthma cases are linked to home environmental triggers (e.g., moisture, mold, dust, pests, pets, nitrogen dioxide, and environmental tobacco smoke).
Other Indoor Health Hazards
Other indoor health hazards include radon, trip and falls, burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, etc. exact a high health and financial cost to lower income families. Substandard housing contributes dramatically to these issues. For example:
- Accidental injuries account for $222 billion in direct medical expenses each year and $36 billion for fall related injuries.
- Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, and is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. One in fifteen U.S. homes is at a high risk for radon.
In urban areas, older homes and buildings often lack even the first generation of energy efficiency improvements. As a result, energy costs are extremely high for those who can least afford it. Unaffordable utility bills are now the second greatest cause of homelessness.
Average New Jersey home energy consumption and household energy expenditures are among the highest in the country. Nearly half of the energy consumed is used to keep families warm. Although New Jersey households consume less electricity on average than the national average household, their bills are higher due to high electricity rates set by the State of New Jersey.
Weatherization work (insulation, air sealing, lighting improvements, and heating system repairs) typically can reduce energy consumption by 35%, saving families over $400 per year in heating and energy costs. Low income children in homes that receive fuel assistance have fewer hospitalizations. Weatherization work helps to improve overall health, reduce asthma medication use, asthma attacks, and sinus infections.
In New Jersey’s poorest communities, indoor toxins and lead threaten the health of children and can lead to lifelong medical conditions often at the same time energy consumption and expenditures are a problem within the same home. These issues are frequently too costly for residents to repair, and every year that they go unaddressed, problems worsen.
Isles addresses these issues through an innovative project called ReHEET (Residential Healthy homes and Energy Efficiency Transformation), which delivers coordinated residential services that are typically only addressed individually -- creating disruption for homeowners and increased costs for administering two programs instead of one.
Through ReHEET, Isles provides energy audits, lead/healthy homes assessments, structural repairs and resident education about keeping a home healthy for families. Isles hopes that this “whole house” approach to addressing all of the problems of older urban homes will become the standard model for community development agencies, weatherization providers and other home visitors nationwide.
Over the past three years, Isles has made more than 200 homes lead safe, healthy, and energy efficient. In our role as a lead in in environmental health, Isles has convened diverse stakeholders to draft a NJ Strategic Plan for Healthy Housing, identifying eight core elements for success and key action steps to move forward.
Peter Rose: Managing Director of Community Enterprises