How housing influences health: A conversation with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

By: Akshita Singh | May 9, 2019

The high cost of housing is a major public health issue that is affecting every county in the United States. To learn more, recently spoke with Marjory Givens, an Associate Scientist with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (UWPHI) and Deputy Director of Data & Science with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between UWPHI and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

County Health RankingsThe annual County Health Rankings measure vital health factors, including high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, unemployment, access to healthy foods, the quality of air and water, income inequality, and teen births in nearly every county in America. They also measure housing costs, and according to the County Health Rankings database, one in four renters are spending more than half of their income on housing costs. The populations in counties where consumers struggle, as a result of the housing burden, tend to have poorer health measures, such as more children living in poverty and higher rates of food insecurity.

The disparity between the minimum wage and the wages it takes to afford a rental home results in a shortage of 7.4 million rental homes nationwide. In addition to 25% of renters that spend more than half of their income on housing, hundreds of thousands go homeless on any given night, emphasizing the need for greater investments in affordable housing solutions.

Marjory Givens, a population health scientist at the University of Wisconsin, added that the relationship between housing and health has numbers to back it up: “Looking to datasets that are collected nationwide, this issue of housing was one that certainly rose to the surface.” What do you think can be done so that more people can afford both housing costs and food/medication costs?

MG: Each year, the County Health Rankings show us that housing, education, jobs, and other factors work together to impact how well and how long we live. Housing is key to that, particularly since it is the largest single monthly expenditure for families. If people can’t afford to cover that expense they also can’t afford other essentials necessary for good health. Our What Works for Health tool provides changemakers with evidence informed strategies on range of challenges facing communities. What do you think is the reason behind why so many households spend over half of their income on housing?

MG: This challenge isn’t just about housing supply and demand. It’s intertwined with social and economic factors in our communities. For many households, earned income isn’t keeping pace with housing costs. Making progress on this challenge means a comprehensive approach that ensures more housing options are available through a living wage. It’s about helping working families by readying the workforce with vocational and job training and investing in quality education to prepare our children for the competitive jobs of tomorrow. What is something that can be done right now to alleviate the housing cost burden in urban and rural communities?

MG: Communities can look to others already doing the work. For example, in rural Garrett County, Maryland, a cross-section of partners from throughout the community have come together to develop more than 700 affordable, low-income, mixed-income and workforce housing units. And in Chelsea, Massachusetts not only is more affordable housing being built but they are also focused on the preservation, rehabilitation, and maintenance of existing affordable housing through an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

New call-to-action expresses our sincerest thanks to Marjory Givens and the whole team at UW Population Health Institute and the County Health Rankings program. You can learn more about County Health Rankings here.


This interview was conducted for informational purposes only. County Health Rankings does not endorse and is not a customer of, and participated voluntarily in this interview and its publication.

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