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Pathways to Healthy Housing in Austin, Texas

Written by Awais Azhar on February 16, 2017

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Austin is uniting multiple sectors like housing, healthcare, transportation and other services to tackle the social determinants of health.

This blog reports back from the Housing + Health summit, mentioned in a recent Healthy Community Initiatives blog featuring the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

On his visit to Austin, Texas last year, David J. Erickson, the Director of Community Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, noted that Austin could be the community that makes the breakthrough in uniting multiple sectors like health, housing, transportation and other services to ensure a better quality of life for all Austinites.

Erickson made these comments at the Housing + Health: Building Blocks of Equity and Opportunity summit held in Austin in November 2016. Co-hosted by HousingWorks AustinFederal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Children’s Optimal Health, the summit brought together practitioners from the housing, health and finance fields to better understand the challenges and opportunities around creating and investing in vibrant, healthy, mixed-income communities.

Surveying Housing and Health Challenges in Austin

In preparation for the summit, HousingWorks Austin conducted a housing and health county analysis for the five counties in the Austin region. The profiles showed the stark differences in housing conditions, affordability, and health access and outcomes between the five counties in the Austin region. In general, counties with lower median income had lower male and female life expectancy, and the opposite was true for counties with higher median income. Wide gaps could be seen between housing affordability and health outcomes in the five counties.

In the Austin-Round Rock region, the median income for a family of four is $77,800. Housing affordability is calculated as a ratio of a household’s median income and in order for a household to not be cost burdened it must spend no more than 30% of its income on housing costs and utilities. This means that in Austin, a family of four must spend less than $1,945 on housing and utilities in order to not be cost burdened. The data from the housing and health county analysis made it clear that focusing on the social determinants of health, including housing affordability and quality of life must guide the city’s work towards improving urban healthcare.

Dr. Megan Sandel, Children’s Health Watch

Dr. Megan Sandel, Principal Investigator at the Children’s Health Watch and the keynote speaker at the summit, described housing as a vaccine because of the huge impact housing quality and stability have on family health. Dr. Sandel clearly demonstrated how an increase in housing stability decreases the likelihood of health risks. Talking about her experiences as a pediatrician, Dr. Sandel explained the importance of creating health equity through improved housing provision and services.

Dr. Sandel also stressed the impact health risks have on an individual family and on the community’s economic wellbeing, explaining how missing days of school or work can influence a household’s income in the present and in the future. As we address the housing needs of a community and minimize the associated health risks, we are better equipped to provide increased economic opportunities for the residents of that community.

Responding to the Challenge

Already partnerships are emerging from the summit as local health providers are reaching out to housing providers to coordinate efforts and ensure that all Austinites have healthy and affordable housing.

The Housing + Health summit was an initial step towards achieving the goals of housing and health equity in Austin by bringing together professionals from many fields to discuss challenges and opportunities. The summit emerged through the collaboration between the three co-host organizations, HousingWorks Austin, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Children’s Optimal Health, as they sat down to talk about the need to collectively address the intrinsic links between health, housing and finance.

The intentional collaboration between the organizations prompted Erickson to note that, “Leadership is everywhere, and I was blown away by how much creativity is here (in Austin).” Even as he praised the strong leadership around these issues in the city, he stressed the need to coordinate efforts between community-based organizations, local government, and the financial sector. Such coordination is necessary to connect the healthcare needs of the community with community-based healthcare solutions already present in Austin.

Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin

Austin Mayor, Steve Adlerremarked at the summit, “We have at this moment in time, I think, an alignment of stars with respect to housing and housing’s relationship to health in the community, and the housing and health relationship to affordability in this community. That is an alignment unlike anything that we have had up to this point in time and I think it is really important that we take fullest advantage of that as a community.”

Capturing the inertia from the summit, this year HousingWorks Austin is convening discussions with key stakeholders to develop partnerships and carry the conversation forward. The organization is planning to host round table discussions on specific healthcare and housing topics in partnership with other local and regional entities to address specific concerns highlighted in the summit.  Already partnerships are emerging from the summit as local health providers are reaching out to housing providers to coordinate efforts and ensure that all Austinites have healthy and affordable housing. Conversations are also emerging surrounding the role of community health workers in assessing housing quality and stability to ensure better health outcomes for residents. These efforts and others are taking advantage of the moment and are leading to a healthier future for Austin.

About the Author


Awais Azhar

Awais Azhar is Program Manager for the Austin Community Investment Collaborative at HousingWorks Austin. HousingWorks Austin is a nonprofit organization that aims to increase the supply of affordable housing in Austin by providing research, education, advocacy and thoughtful, workable affordable housing policy recommendations. At HousingWorks Austin, Awais has been involved with developing research to support advocacy efforts, furthering the conversation surrounding housing and health, and working on policy recommendation at the state and local level. Previously, Awais has worked as a Legislative Aide with the Texas House of Representatives and as part of the community engagement team with the Colony Park Sustainable Community Initiative. Awais graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a dual master’s degree in Public Policy and Community and Regional Planning. He is a part of the Central Health Community Health Champions class of 2017 in Austin, Texas.