Are High Housing Costs Bad for Your Health?


Housing prices have reached new heights, and after a brief pause, rent is once again climbing.  Not only are record-high housing costs bad for your wallet – they can be bad for your health, too.

Snapshot of America’s housing market: The median sale price for a new home in September 2021 was $408,800, compared to $217,000 in September 2011.  In Washington, DC the median price for all housing types in the city reached a new record-high of $705,000 in October 2021, while the median for all types of housing in the entire DC-metro area was $535,000, a 7% increase from last year.

  • It’s not just expensive coastal cities: Housing prices across the Sun Belt have been shooting up, too.  The median sale price of home in the Austin, TX-metro area hit $480,000 in July 2021, up 37% from the previous year, while the median sale price for a home in Nashville, TN reached $368,567 in September 2021, an 18.8% increase from September 2020.

Why? Supply and Demand

The biggest reason Americans are facing skyrocket housing prices is due to a lack of homes on the market.  Half as many homes were built in 2010-2020 as there were in the previous decade, and the US entered 2020 with a shortage of 2.5 million housing units.  Exacerbating the low supply of housing is an uptick in demand that’s being driven by record low-interest ratesremote work opportunities, and interest from millennials.

Housing as a Social Determinant of Health

Social determinants of health, or the economic and social conditions that influence health outcomes, are receiving more attention from the health policy world than ever before.  In addition to employment, education, and access to food, housing is a top social determinant of health, and numerous studies show a strong relationship between housing and health.

  • Mental health: People who pay more than 50% of their income on housing costs such as rent are more likely to experience depression and substance use disorders than those with more stable housing situations.
  • Physical health: Access to affordable housing has been attributed to better cardiovascular health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower rates of prescribed blood pressure medication.
  • Health equity: Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be extremely low-income renters.  Thus, the negative health outcomes associated with a lack of stable and affordable housing disproportionately affect communities of color.

What’s to be done?  While not a panacea, boosting the housing supply would mark a major step in addressing the nation’s affordable housing supply – and improving health outcomes for people who lack housing stability.  A major barrier to building more housing are zoning codes, which overwhelmingly limit new construction to single-family homes that take up more space than other types of housing and limit the overall number of new housing units that can be constructed.

Fortunately, reforming zoning codes to allow for higher-density construction to include more diverse housing types like apartments, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units has gained steam in recent years as a popular policy option.  Federal policymakers and lawmakers have noticed, and the Build Back Better Act currently includes more than $4.26 billion for a program to incentivize “streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes.”

While building more residential units would be a major step in cooling rising housing prices, zoning reform won’t solve America’s housing affordability crisis overnight.  New construction is almost always more expensive than existing units, and labor shortages in the construction industry combined with a shortage of raw materials like lumber are increasing the prices for new construction homes more than normal. However, in the meantime there are some more immediate policy options that can provide housing stability including:

  • Housing vouchers, which public housing agencies provide to low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to allow them to afford housing.  The Build Back Better Act notably includes $25 billion in new funding for housing vouchers.
  • Inclusionary zoning, which requires developer to set aside a certain number of housing units that are affordable to low- or moderate-income renters.  Jurisdictions can also offer a density bonus, or an allowance to build more units than would otherwise be allowed, to offset the cost of providing affordable housing.

America’s housing affordability crisis is deeply complex and has no simple solutions.  But without any major policy changes, the circumstances surrounding a major social determinant of health aren’t likely to change soon, and housing will continue to remain unaffordable for a large swath of Americans.

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