Colorado Health Symposium focuses on housing crisis and its effect on public health
KEYSTONE — What is a house? Is it just a physical space to get shelter? Just an investment? Or does it represent something more — a connection to community, a garden to grow a family, a foundation to build a better, healthier life?
Whatever housing means to us in our own lives, the lack of it has become one of the toughest community challenges being dealt with across the nation.
The problem is especially prevalent in Summit County and across Colorado, where the population has exploded over the past four decades. Finding affordable places for all those people to live is among the top concerns for local governments — one compounded every year as more people move to the state.
At the Colorado Health Symposium, which took place at the Keystone Conference Center this week, housing and the myriad related social issues were front and center in the conversation on public health.
The symposium’s topic was “The Intersection of Housing, Health and Inequity,” and speakers discussed the many reasons it’s hard for people to find an affordable place to live in Summit and so many other growing communities across the country.
The headline panel on the first day featured moderator Alan Well, editor in chief of health care journal Health Affairs; Mehrsa Baradaran, associate dean for strategic initiatives and associate chair of corporate law at the University of Georgia School of Law; Ismael Guerrero, executive director of Denver Housing Authority; Brigid Korce, program development director for Housing Solutions for the Southwest; and Matt Yglesias, co-founder of news and opinion site Vox.com.
The panelists spoke on the many causes and possible solutions to the nation’s housing crisis, with a focus on the urban-rural and racial divides that create housing inequality.
Yglesias began the panel discussion by laying out why where a person lives is as important as having a place to live to begin with.
“A house is important because it provides shelter, but it’s also important because it gives you a specific place to live,” Yglesias said. “Where that place is matters a lot. It matters for what schools and jobs you have access to, it matters for how long your commute is, it matters for the crime and environmental concerns in your neighborhood.”
Because location is such an important factor for housing, there are many wealthy, desirable communities — such as Summit County — where “patterns of exclusion” using the levers of government keep wealthy people in and lower-income people out, Yglesias said.
“When we have systems that limit the ability of market-rate and affordable housing to come into those most desirable areas, that has big systematic consequences for how metropolitan areas and the country as a whole operates,” Yglesias said. “The fundamental question of housing inequity is: Do we want the political system to empower the most privileged people to exclude other people from where they are, or do we want to say we want to have open access communities?”
Korce, of Housing Solutions for the Southwest, highlighted the unique challenges facing ski resort towns, where a majority houses sit empty most of the year as second homes or investment properties while workers find it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing.
“In our ski resort towns, we have people working for very low wages while the resort community’s way of life depends on those workers coming to work every day,” Korce said. “We have not been mindful about developing enough units to house the entire workforce.”
Korce also mentioned how incomes in rural and resort areas have not risen along with the cost of real estate, with half the workers in these areas being “cost-burdened,” or paying more than one-third of their income for rent. That kind of burden, she said, is connected to health outcomes in every way.
“We see people not being able to maintain a medication regiment, not meeting basic nutritional needs and not engaging in meaningful quality of life activities because the day-to-day financial grind is too difficult to navigate,” Korce said.
Guerrero, of Denver Housing Authority, suggested communities could start tackling the housing crisis by being mindful of and supporting the work of their local housing authorities. Since local housing authorities, such as the Summit Combined Housing Authority, are most cognizant of the unique needs and challenge faced in obtaining housing, he said communities should support the work they do to develop more affordable housing.
Housing authorities “are creating housing for your community,” Guerrero said. “These are your neighbors, your teachers, your police. It is also high-quality housing that improves property values, stabilizes neighborhoods and stabilize school districts.”
The panel agreed that for communities to effectively tackle the housing crisis, they must be open to “systemic changes” that could change the character of their communities.
Yglesias brought up an example of how a community in Washington, D.C., heavily resisted replacing a local park with affordable apartment housing despite the urgent need for housing in the area.
The incident was similar to how Town of Frisco voters last year overwhelmingly rejected developing the site of an abandoned, unused community center and adjoining “pocket park” on Third Avenue into workforce housing units.
“It is true that if you don’t want anything to change, the best thing to do is to not have anything change,” Yglesias said. “But then, you are definitely not solving any problems. I think people who want to see problems solved and recognize that change isn’t always bad need to think about that.”
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