Seeking to improve Memphis’ glut of unhealthy housing than leads to medical problems like asthma and lead poisoning, Memphis and Shelby County leaders as well as officials from 25 partner organizations inked a deal with Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) to upgrade the coordination of government services and philanthropy dedicated to the city’s substandard housing problem.
Baltimore-based GHHI has produced healthier and more efficient housing in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit with improved health and social outcomes for families.
Drastic change is needed as The National Center for Healthy Housing puts Memphis last out of 45 metro areas in the United States for unhealthy housing.
Under the GHHI model, partners work together to establish a framework that addresses housing services, assets, barriers and ways to improve coordination between agencies. Collaboration is the driving force behind the model’s success.
“GHHI has been a guiding force. They’ve done this work in other cities. So, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel in Memphis. With their help, we’ll get this done much faster and more efficient than if we do it on our own,” said Meri Armour, president and CEO of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
The local effort has been led by Le Bonheur Children’s hospital. It grew out of its asthma prevention program, CHAMP, Changing High-Risk Asthma in Memphis through Partnership.
“Memphis is an asthma capital of the country,” said Armour. At Le Bonheur, 40 percent of hospital admissions can be attributed to asthma.
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Climate, especially Memphis’ humidity, affects the asthma rate. Memphis’ role as an intermodal hub doesn’t help, either. Diesel burning trucks and train engines all spew particulates. So, does the fleet of FedEx aircraft.
The largest contributor, though, is substandard housing. Some homes lack insulation and others suffer pest infestation, dust mites, or mold from leaking pipes.
Paul Young (L) and Mayor Jim Strickland (R) sign a Green & Healthy Homes compact at a ceremony at the Benjamin Hooks Library on Nov. 30. (Lisa Buser)
Through CHAMP, Le Bonheur facilitates home visits and evaluates the environment for asthma triggers such as mold, mice and rats, cockroaches, dust mites, pet hair and dander, tobacco smoke and chemical odors.
“I often say we don’t have an affordable housing problem in this community; we have a quality affordable housing problem,” said Paul Young, director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis.
Asthma, which afflicts 2.7 million Americans, is a chronic inflammatory lung condition that affects the airways and the way a person breathes. It can only be treated, not cured. One out of every 10 school-aged children has asthma. Forty percent of asthma episodes are caused by preventable triggers in the home.
“I often say we don’t have an affordable housing problem in this community; we have a quality affordable housing problem.”
According to Census Bureau's 2011 American Housing Survey, an estimated 27,000 households across metropolitan Memphis had asthmatic kids, which affects 14 percent of Memphis children.
“It should not be lost on anybody that asthma is a serious disease. Children die from it. We had a nine-year-old die just last week from a severe asthma attack. So, it’s an emotional problem as you watch these kids struggle for breath, knowing that their bedroom is that place that is making them sick,” said Armour.
In houses built before 1978, chipping from lead-based paint can lead to lead poisoning. Both asthma and lead poisoning have been linked to lower academic achievement in children.
“We fix these kids up and get them squared away only to send them back to an environment that’s only going to make their asthma develop again. This led us to determine we needed to do something about the housing problem,” said Armour.
Structural change is needed as facing the prevalent issue of substandard, unhealthy housing on a case-by-case basis is daunting.
“From our perspective, we are looking for a fast and immediate resolution to the child’s housing deficit. Whether it’s a legal issue and we have legal resources attached to this initiative, that means you can take landlords to court and force them to make the necessary changes to meet code enforcement,” said Armour.
Government agencies have focused energy on improving housing in Memphis. However, the efforts were largely uncoordinated, disparate or piecemeal, and the housing problems have persisted. Through GHHI, these various agencies such as the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department, HCD, and Memphis Light, Gas & Water will all fall under one umbrella.
“We are establishing a plan that will basically align all of the agencies that focus on or touch programs and services to improve housing,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of GHHI.
The alignment will create a “delivery system” of tax revenue and philanthropic dollars for greater impact and will work comprehensively across agencies.
MLGW currently has a program where customers can round up pennies on their bills. The savings can be used for efficiency programs, like home weatherization. (MLGW)
GHHI will track data and evaluate outcomes for problems and success stories. The nonprofit will also create a full-time staff position for the term of the project, which about three years. The staffer will coordinate between partners and help implement the plan.
“It’s using housing to get to certain outcomes. We will be engaging utility dollars, health dollars and dollars that would be directed to education because the outcomes that healthier housing delivers are in those areas,” said Norton.
Under the plan, if a person makes an application over a hazardous housing issue it will prompt a comprehensive assessment. Traditionally, the person may have ended up filling out several forms from several agencies before the problem would be addressed.
Data from assessments of energy, household, and environmental health will draw resources in an aligned manner.
"So, it’s an emotional problem as you watch these kids struggle for breath, knowing that their bedroom is that place that is making them sick."
“I would like to see an easier system for citizens to be able to navigate and get the support that they need so that their children have better health outcomes, that families are stable, and that they know where to go to get resources,” said Young.
Another concern is home energy efficiency. MLGW currently has a program where customers can round up pennies on their bills. The savings can be used for efficiency programs, like home weatherization. Many problems can be remedied by a properly sealed home, keeping cold air and pests outside.
“So now we can align MLGW programs with the Healthy Homes programs and the lead abatement programs.
A lot of families have needs and if we don’t address them comprehensively they degrade the investments that we make. When all these work together, we end up with more than just a band-aid,” said Norton.
Participating organizations include BLDG Memphis, Habitat for Humanity, Memphis Bioworks Foundation, Memphis NAACP, Neighborhood Preservation Inc., United Housing Inc., Tennessee Valley Authority, Memphis Area Legal Services, Memphis Lead Safe Collaborative, Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, Safeways Inc., the Shelby County Health Department, and the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.