Title: Does housing affect health?

Sub-title: A new report on housing affordability says that home quality and location are major factors in the health of Canadians.


Housing affordability is an increasing challenge that stems in large part from builders’ preference for targeting more lucrative markets. This shortage forces many Canadians to settle in lower income neighborhoods, where research shows, that the health of residents is worse that that of those live in more well-off areas, as is their productivity. To alleviate the problem, private sector developers, governments and civil society need to play a bigger role. Those are the main conclusions of study released late last month by the Conference Board of Canada, titled Building from the Ground Up: Enhancing Affordable Housing in Canada.


As its title implies, the Conference Board’s report takes a close look at housing unaffordability and at ways to remedy the situation. However it is its review or research related to the link between good housing and health which jumps out. “Quality housing projects protect residents against injury, disease and external dangers,” says the report. “The location of housing determines how well residents are connected to communities that offer access to jobs, education social services and other support systems.”


Housing affordability is a major problem in Canada the report concludes. Fully 20 percent of Canadian households spend more than 30 percent of their pre-tax income on housing, the threshold above which it becomes “unaffordable.” Another five percent live in subsidized or social housing. In fact the average Canadian household spends more on housing than it does on all other life essentials including food and clothing. A typical Canadian family spends 50 percent more on shelter than on food and five times more than on clothing. These statistics lead the report’s authors to worry that the high cost of Canadian housing may “constrain non-shelter expenses in ways that negatively affect health.”


Health and productivity

However this is no mere speculation. Research has already long shown links between wealth and health. For example in 1996 the probability of males living up to age 75 was 68.6 percent in the richest neighborhoods and only 53.4 percent in poorer neighborhoods. For females, the probabilities were 79.7 percent and 73.0 percent respectively.


The link should come as no big surprise. “In the absence of cost pressures due to unaffordable housing, families have more money to spend (elsewhere) such as nutritious food,” the report says. High household density, poor air quality and inadequate ventilation, and the respiratory and contagious diseases that they are associated with, are also byproducts of financially squeezed families. This is important because a populations’ health has a direct relationship with how productive it is the report notes. “Put simply, people who are housed well work well.”


The report highlights several factors which make housing affordability an extremely complex issue. For example despite affordability challenges, home ownership levels in Canada are at an all time high. Yet while this may seem like a positive, the country’s de-emphasis on rental units, which are particularly valuable to mobile and low-income workers, has its downsides too. Another group that has significant housing affordability challenges is immigrants, for which Canada is almost entirely dependent to spur population growth. Yet while immigrants’ housing affordability challenges are indeed significant and persistent, adopting a new home in a new country is a longer-term process, which cannot be expected to occur overnight.


What is to be done?

The Conference Board’s findings are in line with those of other recently released data. RBC and Desjardins Economic Studies compile affordability indexes which both showed that rising prices during the fourth quarter of 2009 made it harder for Canadians to get into the housing market, a trend that will likely continue into this year. Although housing prices are unlikely to rise during the second half of the year as they did in the first, mortgage interest rates, which are the single biggest expense for many Canadian homeowners are expected to rise further, which would have pretty much the same effect.


Yet while the Conference Board report’s analysis of the situation seems solid, one of its conclusions; that private sector developers ought to assume a prominent place in remedying the situation, may be less so. In fact, as the report itself acknowledges, it was developers’ move away form supplying lower cost housing that played a big role in creating the situation we are in right now. However the Conference Board argues that the reasons developers have focused more on more affluent clients are complex, and that their attitudes may change, if the right incentives are put in place.


Let’s hope so, because if the Conference Board is right, Canadians’ health and productivity depend on it.





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