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Housing is essential to good health.

We have all heard, “Home is where the heart is.” Gladys Knight and Elvis Presley even sang about it. But where home is—or is not—also affects how healthy the heart is.

My father’s job took him around the world, but I always had a home. The houses were modest, but my father planted flowers, trees and vegetables. I played outside, caught bugs, and did things kids do. Each day, my father went to work, my brothers and I went to school, and my mother created a nurturing home.

When we went back to Taiwan to visit, we stayed in Taipei where we crammed into a tiny Japanese-style home with three or four of my uncles, aunts, and their families. On the tatami floors, we lived and ate during the day and slept at night. Or we would go to my grandfather’s house in the countryside where my father, his six brothers and three sisters were raised. I remember how drawing water from the well gave way to the hand pump then to running water. The pig pen was by the outhouse, which made for an intrepid trip at night until indoor plumbing arrived.

All these places hold a special place in my heart. Despite the simple conditions, all my uncles and aunts were educated and went on to successful business, engineering, pharmacy, medical, and other careers. Other than one who died of a childhood infectious disease, they enjoyed long, healthy lives.

Sadly, many in Pierce County do not have a safe, stable home. That means no fond memories and no place for the heart. It also means less opportunity to achieve one’s full potential.

Connecting the dots between housing, health, and opportunity

Housing directly impacts your health and your success in life. It is one of the social, economic, and environmental conditions that produces 55% of health:

  • Those who live in poor housing conditions or are unhoused are at higher risk for high blood pressure, asthma, respiratory infections, behavioral health issues, and other chronic conditions.
  • Teens who do not have stable housing are half as likely to graduate from high school.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, those who live in crowded, multi-generational households or poor-quality housing are more likely to get sick.

Without stable housing, people must rely on friends, family, or co-workers for temporary housing; others sleep in shelters, the streets, or in their cars. That makes it hard for children to do homework and adults to keep or find a job. People also lose treasured mementos, social connections, medications, and important documents needed for school, jobs, financial transactions, and benefits.

In addition, where you live, work, learn, and play determines how healthy you are and how long you live:

  • Residents in different parts of Pierce County may have a 20-year gap in life expectancy.
  • Areas with longer life expectancy and less disease also have higher levels of education and income.
  • People who live in rural areas tend to be older and sicker than urban residents and are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lung disease, and stroke.

Unfortunately, there are racial and ethnic differences with our Black, American Indian, and Pacific Islander families suffering more from housing instability and homelessness.

Barriers to housing, opportunity, and health

People might not have stable housing for many reasons: family conflict, divorce, job loss, poverty, medical or behavioral health issues, and—critically—affordability.

Pierce County’s average rent has increased 45% since the beginning of 2017. In the last year alone, Tacoma rent jumped 18%; today, the average 2-bedroom apartment rent is $1,680.

The average home sale price in Pierce County is $445,000, a 27% increase from 2019. In 2019, a quarter of homeowners were “cost burdened,” which means they paid more than 30% of their income for housing. Of those, a third were “severely cost burdened” (more than 50% of income for housing).

Job losses and inflation from the COVID-19 pandemic have only made this worse. The Health Department’s COVID-19 Health Equity Assessment confirms economic pressures made it harder to afford necessities like rent, food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

Better health in Pierce County depends on more affordable housing

Helping Pierce County residents find housing they can afford is a policy priority for the Health Department. We encourage elected officials and communities to support more choices for housing in our region.

Expanding affordable housing options depends on our ability to join local efforts. We need leaders to partner on community-level actions and speak up for policies like Home in Tacoma a solution that will help more Pierce County residents find affordable places to live.

We need stable housing to enjoy physical, mental, and social health and to achieve our full potential. It will take all our voices, skills, and experience to address this public health problem in Pierce County. Let’s get to work!

For more information on housing policy in Pierce County,  visit Policies to Advance Health Equity.

Housing Blog