Repairing older homes will save lives

by Todd Swanstrom

Extreme heat causes thousands of unnecessary deaths each year in the United States. And due to climate change, heat waves are becoming more common. This summer, for example, Phoenix had a record 31 straight days with temperatures hitting 110 degrees or higher.

Having an airtight home with decent insulation and functioning air conditioning protects people from the ravages of heat in these times. Increasingly, however, people lack such protections. The median age of homes is over 41 years, and in some older Rustbelt cities over half the homes are over 80 years old. Older housing is not airtight and often lacks adequate air conditioning, and low-income households typically lack the funds to address these issues.

How did we get here? Although never stated as official policy, the basic approach in the United States for providing affordable housing has been to subsidize the construction of new homes for affluent households. The housing that the well-off leave behind, the policy assumes, will then filter down to lower income households. As older housing deteriorates, it becomes more “affordable.”

But this trickle-down approach to affordable housing is starting to break apart. It’s time to invest in home repair programs to help low-income households in older homes.

Unfortunately, home repair programs receive relatively little attention from the federal government. One reason is that housing deterioration is largely invisible to the public. You can see a collapsing porch, but you can’t see the elderly couple suffering from heatstroke due to malfunctioning air conditioning. Short of sending inspectors into every home, which would be prohibitively expensive, there is no way to determine the extent of housing deterioration. But that’s starting to change.

Together with a team of researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, I helped develop a new methodology to estimate the need for home repairs by asking people how they experience their home. We mailed out questionnaires and received completed surveys from 582 older homeowners in St. Louis.

What we found was eye-opening. The average cost of needed repairs was $13,023, meaning it would require more than $300 million to finance all needed repairs for older homeowners in St. Louis alone.

Besides hot indoor air temperatures, we found other problems with debilitating health effects, such as faulty electrical wiring, which can cause fatal fires, and excessive mold, which has been linked to serious health problems like asthma.

Funding home repairs makes economic sense. Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit specializing in home repair, commissioned a study which found that every dollar contributed to their repair programs generated $2.84 in “social value.” Of that value, $1.32 came from saved expenses for Medicare and Medicaid, due to fewer injuries and mental health challenges, and reduced use of assisted living facilities.

The lack of affordable housing is at the top of the policy agenda for many politicians. Home repair preserves affordable housing and needs to be added to that agenda. Local advocates can help. Our questionnaire and toolkit enable any city to estimate the need for, and the cost of, home repairs. Both are available online, helping cities take the first step to understand the problem and to take action to fix it.

Todd Swanstrom is the Des Lee Professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.