• Center for Community Change

Alliances Across Issues: Mapping Housing and Health Intersections in the Williamsburg, VA Region

Last year, Housing Virginia began studying the relationship between housing, health, and community in the Williamsburg, Virginia region. These efforts, made possible by the Williamsburg Health Foundation, are part of its mission to connect housing needs with other important socioeconomic issues.

When possible, Housing Virginia uses local-level geographic data to show such issues “up close and personal,” and to illustrate the need for targeted, specific solutions. In this case, demonstrating linkages between housing and health will provide community advocates, providers, and decision makers the information needed to implement “preventative medicine” that improves living conditions for everyone in the community.

Where you live has a substantial impact on your personal health. Previous research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation organized the relationship between housing and health in three unique categories:

  1. Physical condition of the home: Accessibility, lead exposure, inadequate cooling or heating.
  2. Quality of community: Public spaces for physical activity, walkability, access to healthy food.
  3. Housing affordability: Cost burden, threat of foreclosure or eviction, housing insecurity.

These concepts help to frame Housing Virginia’s research and final recommendations.

Housing Virginia’s analysis encompasses the City of Williamsburg, James City County, and York County. These localities have experienced surging population growth over the past decade, especially among the senior population. The number of persons over 65 increased by 78% from 2000 to 2014. One in five seniors live alone, and four in five live in single-family detached homes. Helping seniors “age in place” – and not letting them become “stuck in place” – will be an important priority in the near future.

 

While the region has a lower poverty rate and a smaller share of housing cost burdened households than the state average, these socioeconomic problems are not evenly distributed. For example, the poverty rate in Williamsburg (20.5%) is over double that of both James City (8.5%) and York counties (6.2%). Six out of the region’s 28 census tracts have poverty rates above 15%. Not surprisingly, these areas correspond closely with housing cost burden.

The Williamsburg region is, on average, just as healthy or healthier than Virginia as a whole. But for a significant portion of the population, quality healthcare remains out of reach. Over 11,000 adults in the region could not afford a doctor’s visit in 2013, and nearly 10,000 residents live in “low-income, low-food access” census tracts – more commonly known as food deserts. The region’s average life expectancy is 80.6 years, but ranges from 74 to 86 depending on neighborhood.

As this scatterplot shows, life expectancy declines as the prevalence of housing cost burden increases.

The disparity in life expectancy is highly pronounced in the distribution of the region’s affordable housing. Nearly 80% of the 483 households using housing vouchers are in neighborhoods with life expectancy below 80 years. Over three in five of the 1,300 families living in Low-Income Housing Tax Credit or public housing units are in areas with below-average life expectancies.

What can local leaders do to improve the health of all citizens – and not just those who already have the means to afford a good home and decent care? To make homes safer, localities can invest in weatherization and home accessibility modifications for low-income seniors. To create healthy spaces, planners can prioritize walkability and encourage affordable housing in amenity-rich areas. And to reduce housing insecurity, localities can create trust funds and back supportive housing programs.

There are many other programs and strategies available, and the correct “prescription” should be the result of due diligence by local policymakers. But perhaps most importantly, stakeholders should recognize that these problems are all related, and work collaboratively to make efficient use of limited resources.

In March, Housing Virginia presented these findings and a series of preliminary recommendations to the Williamsburg Health Foundation Board of Trustees. Our final report, which will be released in the next few weeks, will precede a series of community meetings in the Williamsburg region. There, local officials and practitioners will have the opportunity to examine this research, discuss where the greatest needs exist, and develop collective solutions to solve these complex issues.

Visit Housing Virginia’s website for more information on its Housing and Health initiative.

By Jonathan Knopf, Senior Associate, Research + Programs, Housing Virginia. 

Housing Virginia is a broad based, statewide partnership of public and private organizations and committed individuals. We believe that all Virginians should have access to high quality, affordable housing in suitable locations. Housing Virginia exists to address the large-scale housing issues that we face by: Informing discussions with current, reliable data and information about housing affordability; Connecting the dots about the consequences of having unmet housing needs; Unlocking housing opportunities by creating an unparalleled pipeline of housing news and information.