Is affordable housing good for public health? A new study says it could be Affordable housing has well-documented socioeconomic benefits. But a new study shows it could also be good for cardiovascular health.
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Is affordable housing good for public health? A new study says it could be

D.C. is one of several local jurisdictions that requires affordable housing in new development. A new study suggests such policies can predict better heart health. Becky Harlan/for WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Becky Harlan/for WAMU/DCist

The socioeconomic benefits of affordable housing are well-documented. Research has demonstrated that increased access to affordable housing is the most cost-effective way to both reduce childhood poverty and increase economic mobility.

But what about its positive effects on health?

That question is at the center of a new peer-reviewed study by two professors at George Washington University, who set out to examine the relationship between cardiovascular health and a particular kind of affordable housing policy known as inclusionary zoning.

Local jurisdictions including D.C., Montgomery County, Arlington County, and Fairfax County have inclusionary zoning programs. The rules vary by locality, but they generally require developers of new multifamily buildings to set aside a certain number of units for housing that's affordable to low-income residents. Or, they pay to create them somewhere else.

The study, published last month in the journal Circulation, shows a link between heart health and inclusionary zoning across the hundreds of U.S. jurisdictions that have policies on the books. In those places, residents overall had "uniformly better" cardiovascular health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower rates of prescribed blood pressure medication, it says.

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The association held up even when researchers accounted for other factors that could contribute to better heart health, says co-author Gregory Squires, a professor of sociology, public policy and public administration at GW.

"We controlled on things like income, poverty level, employment, measures of inequality in a jurisdiction [and] racial composition, and what we found was those jurisdictions that had an inclusionary zoning policy in place exhibited lower levels of these health indicators," Squires says.

Outcomes were even better in jurisdictions that had stricter affordable housing requirements, he adds, those where policies were mandatory as opposed to voluntary.

"The higher share of housing covered, the more favorable the outcomes were," Squires says."The policies that focused on renters, as opposed to homeowners, also seemed to have a stronger association."

Squires and co-author Antwan Jones were particularly interested in inclusionary zoning policies — as opposed to other types of subsidized development, such as government-owned public housing — because they're intended to bring low and moderate-income housing into higher-income areas where new development is taking place.

"We really wanted to focus on that because we do know, quite clearly, that there is a relationship between socioeconomic status and health. If this is a mechanism that's supposed to produce neighborhood socioeconomic equity, then you would expect that any health outcomes in that area would be greater than in areas that don't have this tool," says Jones, an associate professor of sociology, epidemiology and Africana studies at GW. "We also found in prior work that racial residential segregation negatively impacts health outcomes in neighborhoods."

Jones calls the findings the first of their kind. But he acknowledges that they do have some limitations.

"We can't say that having an inclusionary zoning policy impacts an individual's risk of cardiovascular disease," Jones says. "And yes, this relationship could be, in part, due to the fact that there is some selectivity — because not all places [have] inclusionary zoning policies."

In other words, places that require inclusionary zoning — usually places where housing markets are competitive and prices are relatively high — could share other characteristics that predict better heart health than jurisdictions that don't have those policies.

But Jones says the study makes a key contribution to future research into the relationship between housing and health.

"We're asking [other researchers] to pick up the ball for us," he says. "I would encourage researchers — irrespective of place — to think about creating more small-scale studies to bolster the evidence."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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