By Will Dominie
Recently, while reading a children’s book to my toddler Ellie, I turned the page and was struck by the simplicity and truth of a single statement: “Every animal needs a home.”
I’ve spent much of the past decade leveraging statistics, research reports, and academic citations to document the importance of a roof over our heads for our health. Yet my two-year-old can easily understand what many of our leaders have forgotten: It is a basic truth that a stable, affordable, quality home is necessary for our wellbeing and dignity.
Millions of households are still feeling the economic reverberations of the pandemic, deepening the longstanding inequities caused by long-standing, systemic, housing and economic discrimination against BIPOC communities. As elected officials end emergency housing protections, this is a critical moment for the public health field to articulate what so many of us have learned first-hand during the pandemic, and what Ellie already knows:
Our homes should be places where we can be with our families, find refuge in turbulent times, and access the resources we need to be healthy. Our homes are a basic human need and should be a right for all, not a commodity.
Announcing HIP’s new Housing Justice Program
At HIP, after many years of successful work on health and housing, we’re scaling up and formalizing our Housing Justice Program to meet this moment. We’re guided by two truths that the pandemic further underscored — lessons that I believe our field needs to build a drumbeat around:
1. When we keep our families and neighbors stably housed, we save lives.
States that kept their eviction moratoria in place had half the infections and one fifth of the deaths of those that lifted them. And newer research indicates that beyond preventing COVID infections, emergency pandemic housing protections improved mental health outcomes, food security, self-reported health, and racial health equity. When we pass policies to keep people stably housed on a mass scale, we save lives and improve health. Full stop.
2. When we choose to, we can do what we need to to protect each other.
Even when it is difficult and challenges the immense political power of the real estate industry or the racism rooted so deeply in our housing policies. Organizers fought for and won emergency pandemic housing protections that kept many millions of us safe. Many of these protections are things that seemed “politically unthinkable” several years ago. Housing justice movements proved that basic housing protections are possible, that they work, and that they save lives. And that grassroots power itself is essential for our collective wellbeing.
So the question I’m left with, and that I think our field needs to lead with is: Do we want to live in a society that is bold enough to care for the lives of our families and neighbors?
I do. HIP does. And I think most people in this country do.
Leveraging Public Health to Advance Housing and Health for All
Those of us in the public health field have a crucial role to play in framing out housing policy decisions with this question. In leveraging all our knowledge, political power, data, resources and skills to help make housing a basic right for all people. And in sharing and building our power with grassroots movements.
These are the foundational tasks of HIP’s expanded Housing Justice Program, building on years of successful work on health and housing, led by my colleagues Sukhdip Purewal Boparai, Sophie Simon-Ortiz and Megan Gaydos. I came on board this spring as Housing Justice Program Director, and we will be adding another dedicated staff person this fall. This dedicated staffing allows us to develop longer-term strategies that include our best thinking and that of housing justice movement partners.
We spent the summer deep in conversation and planning, conducting over 40 one-on-ones with housing and public health organizations. Here’s some highlights of our vision and strategy for the year ahead:
Starting this year, we’ll be narrowing our focus and energies to take on just a few broad campaigns at a time. We’ll be working trans-locally, pursuing research, organizing, and other strategies that are grounded in specific local/state struggles, but serve to cross-pollinate, amplify, and support movements across place–aiming to move the national conversation about what is necessary and possible.
In our first year, we’re prioritizing work on:
- Expanding Renters’ Rights, such as baseline tenant protections like rent control, just eviction, etc.
- Advancing Community Stewardship to take land and housing permanently off the speculative market, and into community stewardship through land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, public housing, social housing, and other models
We will approach this work through lenses of racial and climate justice, recognizing how inextricably linked our homes and neighborhoods are to racial reckoning and liberation, and the necessity of stopping climate change and adapting to the storms, fires, and heat waves that increasingly threaten us and our homes. In subsequent years, we will deepen work on these areas.
We’re doubling down on what we’ve heard is working, in particular our strong research partnerships with housing justice organizations. We also know that the existing research linking housing and health is already strong, so we’ll be expanding our work to make these connections common knowledge, and positioning public health practitioners to be strong spokespeople for housing justice.
We will also be working to convene our public health allies and share our power as a sector to support housing justice campaigns, and local public health departments in their work on housing and health.
Radical uncertainty, radical possibility
Ellie is just about to turn three. When she moves into her first apartment, I want her to live in a world where she knows she won’t have to skip meals to pay rent and that she won’t be arbitrarily forced to leave. I don’t want her to ever worry about lead in her children’s blood, smoke in their lungs, or mold in the walls. I think we can get there. Some systemic shifts take many decades. Others come pouring down like rain.
I think this is a moment where the future is radically uncertain, and where change is radically possible. As our society struggles to make meaning from the past few terrible years, I’m hopeful that those of us in the public health field can help articulate the changes that are both possible and necessary, and build a world where we all have the right to a roof over our heads.
Learn more about HIP’s Housing Justice Program
- Housing and Health for All: A Research and Communications Toolkit for COVID-19 and Beyond — Check out our latest Housing Justice research and communications toolkit for advocates to leverage public health data for long-term housing justice. The toolkit includes research-based talking points that you use to bolster the ongoing shared work of housing and health sectors’ advocacy in building a more just and healthy future.
- Connect with us! Are you a public health practitioner trying to figure out your best role in housing justice? A health department who is housing-curious? An organizer who needs some data or backup at an upcoming city council meeting? Get in touch! This work needs all of us, and we’d love to strategize, campaign, research, and win alongside you. Contact me at email@example.com.
Will Dominie leads HIP’s Housing Justice Program. He has spent the last 15 years fighting for a world where we all have a roof over our heads, the resources we need to thrive, and the right to determine our own futures. He believes that mass-based, feminist, anti-racist movements get the goods, and has spent his career moving our government institutions into alignment with these movements.