Health and Housing: Building Better Outcomes
By Joseph Gaccione
Ricardo Nungaray is used to helping people. He works as a security guard at Circus Circus and is a member of The National Guard. Now as a UNLV School of Nursing student, he’s getting more involved in the community. Nungaray recently volunteered to help deliver groceries for seniors living in affordable housing. The volunteer program is called “Golden Groceries”. Nungaray says he wanted to help in any way he could, and "Golden Groceries" was an option he could do at his level (compared to other volunteer efforts that required more nursing experience). “Whatever I can do. I know I can’t do everything, but if I can do a little bit, I could potentially help somebody, and that’s a win to me.”
"Golden Groceries" is not new to Southern Nevada. It exists as a delivery service for Three Square Food Bank to bring food and supplies to people that either cannot leave their homes or have limited transportation. The program is used by nonprofits throughout Southern Nevada, like Nevada HAND. For them, "Golden Groceries" served a new purpose in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak to help residents in their communities. “We want to make sure we’re keeping our seniors safe in their homes”, says Greta Seidman, Director of Communication & Marketing for Nevada HAND. During the pandemic, Nevada HAND helps organize grocery drop-offs by working with entities like UNLV (Nevada Hand is also a community partner for UNLV nursing, offering undergraduate clinical experiences for both community health nursing and geriatric nursing).
Seidman also adds COVID-19 as of now has not halted funding for more residential development, nor has it slowed down any developments already planned. These are two critical points to look at, as Nevada ranks among the worst in the U.S. in affordable housing. This is also a reminder that, aside from the financial implications and shelter possibilities, affordable housing is relevant when it comes to maintaining quality health, both physical and mental.
DEFINING AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Affordable housing is defined as not spending more than 30% of your income on housing and utilities. “Any more than that, you have to start making some difficult decisions," says Seidman. "‘Do I get my car fixed, or do I need to not go grocery shopping? Do I need to fill this medication so I can make my rent check’?”
Recent data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) rates Las Vegas as the most severe Metro area for available affordable housing for extremely low income individuals, which is 14 available units for every 100 households looking for a home. The report also says Nevada is rated among U.S. states with the greatest percentage of extremely low-income renter households with severe cost burdens, at 81%.
Stable housing translates to a greater likelihood of a stable life. As UNLV School of Nursing lecturer Minnie Wood explains, “Housing and health are inextricably linked. If we have a roof over our heads and are living in safety, we are more likely to be healthy.” Seidman adds the outcomes of better health from housing can lead to more positive personal moments. “Kids have better educational outcomes, they sleep better at night, they have a place to do their homework. People are better employees because there is less absenteeism. They don’t have to worry about where they’re sleeping.”
NOT JUST A MONEY ISSUE
Although legislation was passed in 2019 to help, Seidman argues there is no silver bullet to end housing problems in Southern Nevada. In fact, she refers to the problems as a “perfect storm” of complications.
Land availability remains an obvious, but important component to more affordable housing. As Seidman points out, there is a lot of land in Nevada owned by the federal government, which is an option. Ensuring that developments are close to infrastructure and resources that residents will need is critical. “Being intentional about locating affordable housing is important. For families, this means proximity to schools, jobs, and public transportation, as well as grocery stores and other necessities. For seniors, it’s access to transportation, groceries, and healthcare, among other things. It speaks to understanding the needs of the residents, but that intentionality is pivotal.”
Another side effect of affordable housing is the notion of NIMBYism. “NIMBY” stands for “Not In My Back Yard”. It’s a term that can describe someone or a group of people who oppose something they see as unpleasant or harmful near where they live. In some cases, NIMBYism targets anyone of a lower economic status over fears like crime and disease, and it’s a more subtle resistance to developing affordable homes near more affluent areas.
Seidman says this line of thinking is narrow and too generalizing. She encourages someone who doesn’t truly know what affordable housing is to visit an affordable housing community and see for themselves these neighborhoods are similar to others throughout the valley. “They’re bright, they’re really nice neighborhoods. There are kids playing, there are people talking in the street. People look out for each other. These are hospitality employees, early childhood education instructors, caregivers, and pet groomers. These are people we trust with our kids, our aging parents, and our pets."
But NIMBYism can also be racialized. Wood argues for more changes in public policy to augment the health-housing connection, using historical context to frame those changes. “Redlining policies resulted in racial segregation of communities and created neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated. This legacy lives on in lower income neighborhoods with less access to healthy food, places for recreation, and other services. So, it is important to see that we can't divorce individual health from the social conditions in which we live. And those social conditions are fraught with inequality.”
Seidman urges people who want to help push for more affordable housing to get educated on the issues. She also stresses the importance of legislation on multiple levels to really make a difference. “We have a supportive group of local, state, and federal elected officials, as well as agencies that recognize the urgent need for additional affordable housing, as well as preserving our existing supply of affordable housing. It’s important to have collaboration, understanding, and communication as we move forward to ensure that we’re addressing funding mechanisms, NIMBYism, building efficiently and building to address our shortfall.”
For Wood, she urges people to ask themselves what we are doing to address housing if we consider it a human right. “Nurses, especially, need to take seriously our obligation to engage in the crafting of public policies that are egalitarian and support the health of our all people in our communities.”