It is well known that substandard housing conditions and homelessness lead to bad health. Less appreciated – but equally important – are the health problems of families who can barely afford their rent and are forced into unstable home lives.
Though the economy is slowly improving, rents are rising in California and around the nation, forcing working families to move and making it difficult for kids to be healthy and learn.
They’re people like Henry and Lisette Duarte of Los Angeles. After Henry lost his job in 2012, the Duartes couldn’t afford their rented three-bedroom home. They spent nearly 18 months moving around the Los Angeles area, doubling up with relatives and finally living in one motel after another. They endured long commutes just to keep their 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in the same schools, where they both receive special services for autism. Though the Duarte family’s life has settled down lately, their monthly rent still eats up a big chunk of their income.
The new Make Room campaign is giving a voice to the 11 million renters who pay at least half their income on rent. It is sponsored by Enterprise Community Partners, the national nonprofit housing organization.
I see the problem of unaffordable rent in my medical practice. For many young patients who are failing to thrive, their biggest problem is not food but housing. They wake up each morning not sure where they will sleep, which affects not only their bodies but their growing brains. Kids who move more than twice in a year are more likely to get hospitalized. A single change in elementary schools is equivalent to missing out on four weeks of progress in math and reading, research shows.
When families spend at least half of their income on rent, they are forced into a nearly impossible dilemma of making rent or paying for groceries, medicine, child care and other essentials. In California, the problem is even more acute. About 1.75 million households, or 30 percent of the state’s renters, pay at least half of their income on rent and utilities. That’s the third-highest in the country, barely behind Florida and New Jersey, according to an analysis of 2013 census data by Enterprise. In Sacramento County, around 67,000 families, or 28 percent of renter households, pay at least half their incomes on rent.
With so many expensive rental housing markets, California desperately needs more affordable housing. The state has a shortfall of 1.5 million affordable rental units, according to the California Housing Partnership.
It’s imperative that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown boost the development of affordable homes. A package announced in January by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins contains several key measures. One would allow the state to issue an additional $300 million a year in tax credits for low-income housing. Another would create an ongoing funding source for affordable housing through a $75 document fee on real estate transactions, excluding home sales.
Investing in affordable housing will create jobs and preserve the state’s workforce. Business owners know of the difficulties in recruiting workers due to skyrocketing housing costs in California and have seen workers leave the state due to high housing costs. As a result, major business groups from Silicon Valley to Orange County recognize the need for affordable homes and support the legislation.
It’s time for quality housing to reach all American families, allowing them to have a healthy future.
Megan Sandel is an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and a board member of Enterprise Community Partners.