Health Care

2021 Housing Fact Book looks at the relationship of housing and health

“In Rhode Island, the primary driver of the health risks posed by the state’s housing is the age of our housing stock, with nearly three-quarters predating safety regulations for contaminants like lead and asbestos. Older homes also pose hazards related to accessibility and cost more to heat and cool. Housing of any age can lead to health risks if not maintained or kept clean. Untended safety repairs can lead to burns, trips, and falls, posing risks especially to the youngest and oldest members of any household. While Rhode Island continues to make gains related to healthy homes, thousands of households remain at risk.”
Photo for 2021 Housing Fact Book looks at the relationship of housing and health

Published on October 15, 2021
By HousingWorks RI

The 2021 Housing Fact Book released today by HousingWorks RI (HWRI) at Roger Williams University takes an expanded look at the intersection between housing and health, and uses the framework of the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) to explore how healthy, affordable homes connect Rhode Islanders to the opportunity for overall wellbeing. 

In Rhode Island, the primary driver of the health risks posed by the state’s housing is the age of our housing stock, with nearly three-quarters predating safety regulations for contaminants like lead and asbestos. Older homes also pose hazards related to accessibility and cost more to heat and cool. Housing of any age can lead to health risks if not maintained or kept clean. Untended safety repairs can lead to burns, trips, and falls, posing risks especially to the youngest and oldest members of any household. While Rhode Island continues to make gains related to healthy homes, thousands of households remain at risk. 

Lead poisoning poses the greatest risk to children aged three years and younger due to their developing central nervous systems, however, significant risks remain through age five. Of the 66,588 children aged five and under in Rhode Island, 73% live in units built before 1980, and 48% of those aged 3 and under. While physical disabilities affect Rhode Islanders of all ages, the largest segment is older people. Of those aged 65 or older, 23% (40,243) have a disability and live in a home constructed before 1980. 

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated housing’s key role in health and wellbeing, and evidenced the disparate impact across Rhode Island’s communities. In meeting these disparities head on, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) has emerged as a leader in integrating the Social Determinants of Health and promoting health equity. With Health Equity Zones (HEZ) operational across 26–out of 39 Rhode Island municipalities–municipalities are seeking to make the improvements necessary to reducing disparities. As observed by Rhode Island Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH:  

“This 2021 Housing Fact Book makes clear that housing is one of the many community level factors that impacts health outcomes very significantly. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a healthy life, no matter their ZIP code, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, level of education, level of income, or insurance status. To make this vision a reality, we must ensure that everyone has access to healthy, affordable housing. RIDOH will continue to partner with HousingWorks RI and organizations throughout Rhode Island that are working to build health through efforts like this at the community level.” 

Among the SDOH domains, economic stability remains critical to HousingWorks RI’s vision for Rhode Island. Despite the recent rebound in employment, a housing wage gap has been present in Rhode Island for many years, but was further highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the dominance of hard-hit industries like food service and hospitality, Rhode Island experienced a slower recovery than the New England region. The state’s unemployment rate in June 2021 was 5.9%, compared to 5.3% regionally. Even when employed, however, the state’s high growth occupations do not meet the wages needed to affordably own or rent. Of the more than 11,000 jobs represented by the top 20 “high growth occupations,” 72% of them do not pay enough to affordably rent the 2020 average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island.  

“The affordability crisis in Rhode Island has only been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19,” said Brenda Clement, Director of HousingWorks RI. “Urgent housing needs across the state, and the continued barriers to the development of new homes, underscore the need for state and local leaders to remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure adequate funding. With the state’s per capita investment–at $18.34 in 2020–continuously remaining the lowest per capita state investment in New England, the time for government leaders to produce, preserve, and sustain Rhode Island’s housing inventory, is long overdue. We must make the necessary investments today to ensure a prosperous future for Rhode Island and its residents long-term.”  

Other key facts regarding affordability from this year’s book reveals: 

  • More than 140,000 Rhode Island households, nearly 35%, are housing cost burdened. Cost burdened households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, leaving less money for households to spend in support of our local economies.  
  • Seventy-four percent of renter households with incomes under $14,764 are cost burdened. Of these, more than 17,000, pay more than 50% of their income for housing costs, making them severely cost burdened. 
  • In 2020, for the first time since HousingWorks RI started to measure affordability against the state’s median household income, there are no municipalities where the median household income of $67,167 could affordably buy.  
  • Rhode Island households earning $50,000 or less could affordably rent in only two municipalities–Burrillville and Woonsocket–and households earning the median renter income of $36,078 could affordably rent the average 2-bedroom apartment in only one Rhode Island municipality–Burrillville.
  • The homeownership rate for White households in Rhode Island is 68%, which is double the rate of Black households and more than double the rate of Latino households. The state’s homeownership rate for Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, are 10, 19, and 12 percentage points lower than the national rates of 44, 49, and 60 percent.  
  • While cost burdens for renters are relatively consistent across race and ethnicity, the rate of Black and Latino homeowners’ cost burden is 14 percentage points higher than that of White homeowners.  
  • Housing instability and homelessness remains a top concern in Rhode Island, with the number of unsheltered adults increasing 68% from 2020 to 2021. Other populations experiencing homelessness also saw increases year over year in Rhode Island according to the Point-in-Time Count: single adults (10%), persons in families (24%), and households with children under 18 (26%).  
  • Disparities by race and ethnicity continue to be seen in those Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. Blacks, including those of Hispanic ethnicity, are experiencing homelessness at a rate nearly four times higher than their share of the general population, currently representing more than 25% of those experiencing homelessness. 

HousingWorks RI released the 2021 Housing Fact Book virtually during a morning event. Community partners, industry leaders, and elected officials gathered to listen to a presentation of the Housing Fact Book’s key findings by Annette Bourne, HousingWorks RI’s Research and Policy Director, and to hear from Adrianne Todman, Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as the event’s keynote speaker. The Deputy Secretary discussed her plans for HUD and the state of the nation’s housing, and participated in a Q&A.  

About HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University:

HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University is a clearinghouse of information about housing in Rhode Island. We conduct research and analyze data to inform public policy, develop communications strategies, and promote dialogue about the relationship between housing and the state’s economic future and our residents’ well-being. 

HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University envisions a Rhode Island in which communities embrace a variety of housing choices so that residents, regardless of income, can live in healthy, quality homes in vibrant and thriving neighborhoods. 

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