In Raising Places, community residents explore how place–the elements of where one lives–impacts children’s health. Many things make up “place,” but housing is especially salient when one thinks of children’s living environments. The condition and quality of a home is often influenced by the environment of the neighborhood in which it is located.

First, what do experts say about the intersection of housing and children?

“Housing is a central concern for all families, but particularly for low-income families, who struggle to find affordable, safe, and stable housing.” –Habitat for Humanity

Quality: A Center for American Progress report  says 30 million housing units in the United States have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, or lead. Meaning millions of children live in substandard housing  where they are exposed to unsafe and unsanitary conditions putting them at higher risk for health conditions like asthma and lead poisoning, and even greater emotional and behavioral problems (MacArthur Foundation, 2013).

Ratio of living space size to family size is another factor when considering how housing conditions shape present and future experiences of children. It can be said that crowded living spaces negatively impact the well-being and health of children from sleep and mental health to parental interaction. Overcrowding can also increase risk for childhood injuries, and elevated blood pressure (American Journal of Public Health, 2011).

The need for housing stability in children’s lives may seem obvious, but the long term impact of this into adulthood cannot be underscored enough. A study suggests that “multiple moves in childhood can have lifelong impact, as evidenced by higher rates of adverse childhood events, lower global health ratings in adulthood, and increased mental health and behavior concerns lasting through adolescence and into adulthood,” (American Journal of Public Health, 2011).

Affordability of housing is crucial particularly because it is said that housing is often one the largest expenses families face. This means that for low-income families, the cost of housing may act as a larger financial burden than economically advantaged ones.

“Low-income families, in particular, are unlikely to be able to meet all of their basic needs if housing consumes nearly one-third or more of their income.” –MacArthur Foundation

It is also important to state that when families have few affordable housing options, they may be forced to live in substandard housing, putting them at risk of lead poisoning, asthma, and accidental injury (MacArthur Foundation, 2013).

Now, how has housing shown up in Raising Places communities?

Across the six Raising Places communities, housing is quite a prominent area of focus as residents hope to create healthier experiences for families. Two of the four communities focused on housing include North Wilkesboro and Valley of the Chiefs–both rural, yet very unique areas spanning nearly two-thousand miles apart. These teams designed plans using techniques including observations, interviews and immersion to learn more  about the housing experiences of families in their neighborhoods.

The story of housing in North Wilkesboro

An insight about housing hangs on the wall during the North Wilkesboro community event (left) and a concept sheet is completed for an idea the community hopes to pursue (right).

North Wilkesboro is a North Carolinian town of 5.1 square miles with a population size of about 4,200 people. This is community is predominantly white with Black and Latino people making up about 13% each.

These design team members found in their research that the town has a lot of old housing requiring constant maintenance or that’s simply beyond repair. In a town where 63% of residents are renters, they also learned some landlords in the community have reputations of being unresponsive to maintenance requests or regularly improving quality of their properties. With these sort of challenges, it’s easy to see how many low-income renting families often live in poor quality housing.

A design team member met people in their community and listened to their personal stories. A mom with a six month old child lived in a home lacking insulation and central heat while a copperhead snake made its home in the bathroom. There are children who face sickness due to mold caused by a leaky roof and bad windows, and a teenage boy living in a home with ceilings so low he cannot fully stretch his arms above his head.

In North Wilkesboro, finding a place to live at all can be a challenge. Many apartments can only be found by word of mouth and families described facing discrimination from landlords who don’t want to rent to families with children and rents that are out of reach.  One design team member posed as a renter with three children and a $550 a month budget. After scouring listings online and in local papers for weeks, she only found one rental unit at this price.

“This property owner was incredible evasive. As soon as I told him that I had three kids he shut me down. It was a shockingly disrespectful interaction. I felt really angry that he wouldn't even tell me what the rent would be.” –Julia Turpin, North Wilkesboro design team

For many of the design team members, the learnings unearthed ways of experiencing life that differ from their own. Susan Cogdill best expressed this sentiment by saying, “It made me step out of my comfort zone. I learned so much from this experience that I am appreciative of the experience.”

The story of housing Valley of the Chiefs

Valley of the Chiefs design team member Roger Kitts shares an idea to improve housing in the community.

Valley of the Chiefs is a Native community, a part of the Crow Nation in Montana. It encompasses about .3 square miles where the population is 450 people, 89% of whom are American Indian.

In transforming their poor quality and unstable housing experiences, Valley of the Chiefs residents face rather unique barriers given their repeated loss of land to the United States government. In this Native community, much of the families’ economic stability had been tied to leasing the land to be farmed. The design team found that the community’s need for income and job security plays an integral role in improving housing for families.

“To work toward a quality home, this young couple wants to be able to have jobs to actually be able to do improvements on their trailer home.” –Quincy Dabney, Mayor of Valley of the Chiefs, Valley of the Chiefs design team

Research also showed that some families in the community find themselves living with  many family members under one roof. During the Ideas Lab, it was discussed that overcrowding is a result of land loss and the need to pool together resources and not a  cultural tradition.

“I asked how housing was different for an Indian family. He brought up the issue of children being raised by grandparents, or aunts and uncles, often many under one roof. Often housing is overcrowded and simply feeding them can be an economic hardship.” –Roger Kitts, Valley of the Chiefs design team

Ideas generated at the Valley of the Chiefs community event during the Ideas Lab.

When sharing their research with the group, both Quincy and Roger spoke about a need to grow a non-traditional economy in Valley of the Chiefs to create paths for families to secure housing.  

In both communities, design teams work with residents, including youth, and local stakeholders to co-design solutions to these challenges. In North Wilkesboro, ideas range from government grants for property improvement that renters and landlords can apply for to collectively care for homes. In Valley of the Chiefs, the design team has some ambitious long-term strategies like building a sawmill industry where families can mill a 300 log per person allotment and community build projects with architectural plans allowing extended families to build separate, but connected living spaces with a central area for each family matriarch. They also explored how families in drug or alcohol treatment could be supported in building a family home as a component of their treatment. But they heard from residents that first there's a need to tackle some of the acute needs they face like basic clean up. Valley of the Chiefs community members launched the “Together We are Raising Lodge Grass Campaign” to help neighbors make much needed home repairs.

While the focus of the design teams is on housing, working directly with children and families has reminded them that a house is not just a house, it’s a home. At Raising Places, our communities are creating solutions to big community challenges like housing. But at the heart of our work is the families and children who live there.

Check out the North Wilkesboro and Valley of the Chiefs community pages to follow along with their progress.

References:

Rebekah Levine Coley, Tama Leventhal, Alicia Doyle Lynch, and Melissa Kull, “How Housing Matters,” MacArthur Foundation, September 2013.

Diana Becker Cutts, MD, Alan F. Meyers, MD, MPH, Maureen M. Black, PhD, et. al., “Us Housing Insecurity and the Health of Very Young Children,” American Journal of Public Health, August 2011.

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