Skip navigation

Low Income Housing and Health

A Brazilian favela

Around the world, we see significant health disparities between people living in developed and developing countries, as well as those living across the income spectrum in the United States. Quality of housing is a major factor that contributes to—and perpetuates—these disparities.

We've seen it in the crisis of lead poisoning, where children’s intelligence, personalities, and, in some cases, lives are threatened. We've seen it in public housing developments in Boston, where more than 25 percent of children have asthma and live with airborne triggers—such as pests, dust, and mold—at home. In the developing world, the use of coal and biomass fuels for cooking and heating exposes families to airborne particle levels that far exceed health-based standards. According to the World Health Organization, these exposures are responsible for nearly 2 million premature deaths, with close to half occurring among children under 5 years old.

These conditions, however, are not the inevitable companions of poverty. We have many opportunities to improve housing conditions and health for families across the income spectrum, and already have many of the tools needed to eliminate the environmental exposures that threaten health. For example, we can bolster national policies, implement better building standards, and develop innovative cooking and heating technologies for use in developing countries.  

Looking across the globe, the opportunities are as significant as the challenges. Climate change will continue to stress the planet and the health of its inhabitants. Cities are growing at a scale unprecedented in human history; in China, some estimates predict that the urban population will grow by more than 250 million people in the next decade. These pressing concerns offer us the opportunity to ask:

  • How might we understand yesterday's housing mistakes to ensure tomorrow's successes?
  • Which policies, educational programs, and building designs foster health and save energy?
  • How do you create a city that draws from evidence-based research to improve health and happiness?

Policymakers, architects, urban planners, educators, environmental health officials, and researchers play a significant role in answering these questions and finding solutions to some of the greatest health challenges facing families around the world.  For more information, see:

  • Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities. Read now >>
  • Environmental Conditions within Low-income Urban Housing: Clustering and Associations with Self-reported Health. Read now >>

Text provided by Gary Adamkiewicz, Program Leader, Healthy Cities and Senior Research Scientist, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health.


Photo by dany13 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0