Living in poor, stressful neighborhoods is widely known to lead to major health problems and disparities. A new study the School of Public Health participated in proves that one way to protect low-income people is through an experimental rental housing voucher program that helps them move to significantly better areas and dramatically improve their living conditions.
The study was published in the journal Housing Policy Debate.
“Neighborhood quality is one key social determinant of health, and social determinants of health are fundamental causes of health and health inequity,” says senior author and Associate Professor Theresa Osypuk. “Policies outside of the health sector may be especially important to improve health and reduce health inequities — and housing policy may be able to affect health by improving access to quality neighborhoods.”
The study used data from the experimental Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing Demonstration Program. The program randomly offered low-income families three different forms of housing assistance to see which option produced the best outcomes.
The study showed that families who received rental vouchers that could only be used in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent of households in poverty achieved the best improvements in the quality of their communities. The families were also offered counseling services to help them find housing accepting voucher payments in those neighborhoods.
The families reported fewer signs of physical and social disorder, such as public drinking or drug use, trash, and graffiti; a greater sense that neighbors would notice and report problems; and better feelings of general safety.
Families in the low-poverty treatment group also reported fewer problems with their housing units, such as broken windows, rats or cockroaches, or peeling paint.
The authors said interest in the voucher programs is growing because a recent study showed that children in the experiment who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods at age 13 and younger — and had longer exposures to better neighborhood environments — later experienced higher earnings and attended higher-quality colleges compared with children in the control group.
“Researchers and policymakers interested in cross-sectoral, ‘health in all policy,’ solutions to address health inequities should take notice of the results,” says Osypuk. “The results suggest that engaging in cross-sectoral programs between housing and health may be very efficient in addressing inequities.”
Osypuk plans to continue examining the results of the MTO experiment with future studies studying its specific health effects on participants.