Improving Housing Can Pay Dividends In Better Health

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Uzuri Pease-Greene, right, leads a walk through the public housing complex in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco where her family lives. She is working to have the old buildings replaced. (Talia Herman for NPR)
Uzuri Pease-Greene, right, leads a walk through the public housing complex in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco where her family lives. She is working to have the old buildings replaced. (Talia Herman for NPR)

Faiza Ayesh giggles with delight as she describes her brand-new two-bedroom apartment in Oakland, Calif. She shares her home with her husband and three little girls, ages 3, 2 and 5 months. Ayesh, 30, says she just loves being a stay-at-home mom. "It's the best job in the world."

But Ayesh wasn't always this happy. A little over a year ago she was living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with her family. It was in just terrible shape, she says, "paint chipping all over apartment, no heat, roaches, the windows were terrible, some held up by rope on a wheel, really bad conditions."

Dust from outside seeped in and her oldest daughter's asthma got worse fast, she says. "She's had a mild case of asthma since she was a baby, but when we lived there it went full blown. We didn't know why. She had to take albuterol every day to control her asthma, every day."

But the biggest scare came the day county officials called to say a routine doctor visit showed that both her girls had lead poisoning. A county health official came to test the apartment for lead. "She couldn't believe it; the windows and wood framing with paint chipping everywhere," Ayesh says. "And when she tested it, it all showed it had lead in it; it was so serious she wanted me to take care of it right away."

The health official told Ayesh that her toddlers were probably eating the paint chips. She told Ayesh to use duct tape to cover the peeling paint. Ayesh did that. Then she started looking for a new place to live.

Faiza Ayesh says her family's new home in the Terraza Palmera apartments in Oakland, Calif., has gotten them away from lead paint and asthma triggers.
Faiza Ayesh says her family's new home in the Terraza Palmera apartments in Oakland, Calif., has gotten them away from lead paint and asthma triggers.

In NPR's latest poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 40 percent of lower-income Americans like Ayesh, with household incomes under $25,000 a year, told us they believe that poor neighborhoods and housing conditions lead to poor health.

Across the bay in San Francisco, another mother, Uzuri Pease-Greene, shares a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex with her husband, two daughters and granddaughter. What worries Pease-Greene, 49, the most about their situation is the health of her 4-year-old granddaughter, who has asthma. Marijuana and crack laced cigarette smoke seep into the apartment, including the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps.

The girl's asthma has gotten so severe she had to be hospitalized three times. But that might soon change. The nonprofit group Bridge Housing, which builds subsidized housing for low income individuals and families, plans to tear down the buildings and develop a whole new neighborhood. Pease-Greene, who works for Bridge Housing as a junior community builder, is hopeful that it won't just deliver clean, working apartments but also a neighborhood where it's more difficult for drug dealers to openly sell drugs.

In fact, a number of studies cite clear benefits when people move into decent housing. Lisa Sturtevant, vice president for research at the National Housing Conference, says most of the research has to do with the health of children. Asthma improves. There are fewer visits to the emergency room for routine health problems. And for adults there are often physical health benefits, including reduced obesity and heart disease, along with improved mental health.

And this is pretty much what happened for Faiza Ayesh and her family. Ayesh applied and qualified for subsidized housing built by Bridge Housing. Her family was the first to move into the gleaming new building. She pays an affordable $580 a month for the apartment. It's just a few blocks from the old apartment but feels like another world, she says, with palm trees, lots of grass and safe play areas for the children.

Pease-Greene works for the nonprofit redevelopment group Bridge Housing.
Pease-Greene works for the nonprofit redevelopment group Bridge Housing.

And the family's health? A huge difference, Ayesh says. "We're not sick all the time, our apartment is clean, I don't have to worry about bugs, and when it's cold I can turn on the heat."

Getting out of the old apartment removed the risk of lead exposure. Routine tests show that the girls no longer have lead poisoning.

And her daughter's asthma? Well, you would hardly know she has it, says Ayesh. She hasn't had an attack since moving.

For more about the What Shapes Health poll and the issues influencing individual health, tune in to a live webcast from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Tuesday from 12:30 to 1:30 ET.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Staying healthy usually involves eating right and getting some exercise, but this week and next, NPR is focusing on the social factors that keep us healthy or make us sick. We're calling the series What Shapes Health. Today, we're going to look at housing. NPR conducted a poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It finds that 40 percent of lower-income Americans, with yearly household incomes under $25,000, believe that poor neighborhoods and bad housing conditions are an important cause of poor health. NPR's Patti Neighmond has the stories of two low-income families.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: One person who really knows what a big difference housing can make is Faiza Ayesh, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and three little girls.

FAIZA AYESH: You guys love going to the library?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yeah.

AYESH: Yeah, what do you guys like doing at the library?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Reading books.

NEIGHMOND: Ayesh says she just loves being a stay-at-home mom.

AYESH: What else? What else do you do at the library?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Play with toys.

NEIGHMOND: Ayesh is happy now where she lives, but a year ago, things were very different. She, her husband and daughters shared a small one-bedroom apartment that was in terrible shape.

AYESH: Paint chipping all over the apartment, no heat. We had an infestation of roaches - really bad condition.

NEIGHMOND: Dust from outside seeped into the windows. It was so bad her oldest daughter's asthma got worse fast.

AYESH: She's had a mild case of asthma since she was a baby, but when we lived there, it went full-blown, and we didn't know why. She had to take albuterol every day to control her asthma.

NEIGHMOND: Ayesh says both she and her husband were always getting sick. She suspects all the dust from outside and the cold. She says it felt like they were sleeping outside. She didn't find out until later that it was illegal for a landlord not to provide heat. But her biggest scare came one day when county officials called to say a routine doctor visit showed both her girls had lead poisoning. A county health official came to test the apartment for lead.

AYESH: She couldn't believe it. The windows, the wood framing with - the paint was chipping and when she tested it, it all showed that it had lead it. It was so serious she wanted me to take care of it right away. She told me to get duct tape and cover all the windows, all the places where the paint was chipping on the doorways, the window seals.

NEIGHMOND: The health official figured the toddlers were eating the poisoned paint chips. Ayesh covered the place in duct tape right away, then she started looking for new housing.

Across the bay in San Francisco, another mother, Uzuri Pease-Greene, whom we heard from yesterday, also lives in pretty awful conditions. She shares a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, two daughters and a granddaughter. She says it took eight years for the landlord to fix a hole in her wall. She and neighbors complain ovens don't work, windows don't open, sewage backs up. Pease-Greene says living here, it's easy to get depressed.

UZURI PEASE-GREENE: Well, OK. Well, there's nothing I can do about this hole in the wall, so let me just put something over it and keep on going. OK, well, there's nothing I can do about that sink that's stopped up, so now let me go wash my dishes over here in the bathtub. Or OK, well, there's no hot water, so now you're going to have to just wash up in the sink.

NEIGHMOND: And around the neighborhood, drugs and alcohol are common. So are violent confrontations, break-ins, stabbings, shootings. But what worries her most is the health of her granddaughter, who has asthma.

PEASE-GREENE: And I always can tell when the guy downstairs is smoking his grimmies. Grimmies is cigarettes rolled with crack in it, with cocaine in it. I can always tell when he's smoking that 'cause it will seep up into my window. But then on the other window, people stand outside there on the side of the mountain and their cigarette smoke comes up and that goes into the bedroom where my granddaughter sleeps.

NEIGHMOND: At just 4 years old, her granddaughter's been hospitalized three times with severe asthma. The stress of living here can increase risk for all types of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. But fortunately things are changing. The nonprofit group Bridge Housing recently won a city bid to rebuild the public housing complex. It plans to tear down the buildings and develop a whole new neighborhood starting in about a year.

PEASE-GREENE: You could start off with a unit that is clean, roach-free, everything will be working, and you won't have the dealer standing out on the corner now because it's going to be harder for them to stand out on the corner.

NEIGHMOND: Researcher Lisa Sturtevant, at the National Housing Conference, says studies show when families move out of bad housing into better housing, health gets better, too.

LISA STURTEVANT: Families that were able to move out of low-poverty areas into better-quality housing, they found that adult obesity actually fell by 11 percent. They found that women and adolescent girls experience dramatic reductions in mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

NEIGHMOND: And for children, she says, asthma decreases significantly when they're no longer breathing air contaminated with mold, dust and vermin. One recent study in San Francisco looked at hospital visits after families moved from poor housing into new, redeveloped housing.

STURTEVANT: Children living in that redeveloped housing were 39 percent less likely to have emergency room visits than children who lived in public housing. So there was this indication that living in this stable and affordable and higher-quality housing was really associated with fewer poor health outcomes for these children, who are otherwise very similar.

NEIGHMOND: For Faiza Ayesh and her family who live in Oakland, that's pretty much what happened. Everyone's health got better once they moved.

AYESH: You want to say something?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I like the park all the time.

NEIGHMOND: After Bridge Housing built a new complex in Oakland, Ayesh applied for a subsidy and got it. Her family was the first to move into the building.

AYESH: People are surprised. When I have family come over, they don't believe it. When they come inside the apartment, they're even more surprised. And for the rent I pay, they almost faint (laughter).

NEIGHMOND: Ayesh pays $580 a month for the brand-new, two-bedroom apartment just a few blocks from the old apartment. It's like another world, she says, outside with palm trees, grass and safe play areas and inside...

AYESH: We're not sick all the time, and our apartment's clean. I don't have to worry about bugs. And when it's cold, we can turn on the heat.

NEIGHMOND: And her oldest daughter's asthma? Ayesh says you wouldn't even know she has it. She hasn't had an attack since moving into the new building. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can share your ideas about What Shapes Health at 12:30 Eastern time today. Join a live webcast at npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.