New Developments: Health in Housing

4 min read

After consuming bushels of news articles, social media posts and White House Coronavirus briefings over the past several months, I think we have all become amateur epidemiologists.

Our family, friends and co-workers all have opinions on and routinely debate how our elected officials should be approaching social distancing and reopening businesses at a local, state and national level. While there is room for reasonable differences of opinion on what our national strategy should be to facilitate a speedy, safe recovery, there is one we all need to acknowledge – and which science confirms: COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted lower-income Americans and communities of color.

Access to affordable health insurance remains a persistent challenge for too many Americans. Even before COVID-19 reshaped the national dialogue around health, one of the most hotly debated and resonant issues in the Democratic presidential primaries has been the best strategy to expand quality affordable health insurance to all Americans. There have been countless bills introduced in Congress to remake our health care system ranging from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to Medicare for All.

Solving our national health insurance quandary is essential if we are going to solve America’s escalating healthcare crisis and it is especially important for the residents we serve in the affordable housing community. But while we wait (and advocate) for a health insurance solution, we affordable housers can make a significant impact addressing some of the underlying social determinants of health for many of our country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Affordable housing production and preservation are particularly cost-effective and impactful health interventions that bolster our healthcare infrastructure. When Americans have safe, sanitary affordable housing they have significantly lower levels of stress, more resources to spend on healthy food and necessary medicine, and more leisure time to exercise and take care of mental health. Affordability is a really big part of it, but so is the safe and sanitary aspect of our mission; affordable housing as developed or preserved today provides a physical environment that drives positive health outcomes by focusing on indoor air quality, delivering seasonally appropriate heating and cooling and increasingly providing amenities, like walking paths, gyms, bike shares or community gardens.

It’s encouraging that it’s not only affordable housing stakeholders who are buying into housing as healthcare. As an example, UnitedHealth Group, a diversified healthcare company, has invested more than $500 million in affordable housing, including a major $100 million investment just last month through a partnership with the National Affordable Housing Trust and Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future. Its recent investment will support over 1,000 new service-enriched housing units, as well as provide additional funding for onsite services, backed by systems to measure and analyze health outcomes and expand our body of knowledge. Other healthcare companies are also now investing in this space.

Fixing our insurance regimen and developing more affordable housing are very important steps, but not the only necessities.

COVID-19 has focused our attention on the risks low-income and minority communities bear and hopefully this has created some political will and social imperative to do something about it. Now is the time to challenge our policymakers and our members to be more intentional about health in housing as part of their response to the pandemic, healthcare reform and housing reform. We should do more to incentivize the adoption of health-conscious design in affordable housing and also fully fund resident services, especially those that deliver on positive health outcomes. We should be accelerating Medicaid reform to facilitate more affordable-assisted living as an alternative to nursing care. We must provide more resources to facilitate development in neighborhoods of opportunity that have access to good schools, good jobs and yes, access to good healthcare. This is all within our means and we have the knowledge and capacity to deliver better outcomes.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.