Housing and Health

To promote the conditions of health, we have to tackle housing.


A recent report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, takes note of the housing shortage in California and finds, among other things, that:

  • Between 1980 and 2010 construction of new housing units in LA and San Francisco grew by only 20%, compared to the typical US metro growth of 54%.

  • Even though the metro areas are similar in many respects, Seattle added housing twice as fast as the Bay Area.
  • Rent in LA is 65% above the national average.
  • A 10-percent increase in a metro’s median rent is associated with a 4.5-percent increase in individual commute times.

  • California households are four times more likely to live in crowded housing than the national average.


Although the report is about California, similar issues exist in major metropolitan areas around the country.  Seattle may be better off than California cities, but is still not where it needs to be.

The high cost of housing in many urban areas—especially, but not only in California—increases poverty rates, creates crowding, and lengthens commutes.  All three of these effects impair health.


report from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that the high cost of housing in urban California pushes about 7% of residents into poverty who otherwise wouldn’t be there.  That’s a 50% increase in the poverty rate in places like LA, Orange County, San Diego, and the Bay Area.  Wow.


And just like all sources of poverty, high housing costs impair education.  A study by Nina Chien and Rashmita Mistry  finds that living in areas with a high cost of living was associated with poor educational outcomes, and that the effects are particularly strong for children in low-income families.


Crowding, too, plays a role, by depriving children of space to study, and causing both kids and grownups to lose concentration and sleep.  In a careful analysis that controls for socioeconomic variables, Claudia Solari and Robert Mare find that living in crowded housing impairs school performance as well as physical and mental health.


For all of these effects, there is a large evidence base.  As the housing shortage in California and other cities grows more acute every year, public health should fight nimby objections to new housing with evidence about the real harm to population health of doing nothing.  Nimbyism, too, can be toxic.


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