Housing crisis as public health

For several years, The Commercial has published editorials highlighting problems associated with Pine Bluff’s poorly maintained and dwindling housing stock. In particular, we have regularly noted the crime epidemic that emanates from our community’s decrepit rental housing. Whether one’s home is rented or owned, our city has a tremendous problem associated with blighted housing.

We’ve also published a number of editorials framing crime as not just a criminal justice issue, but as a matter of public health. In the wake of this week’s fire that claimed the life of 95-year-old Oneta Christmas, it’s fitting to restate our concerns about housing safety.

As Naomi Barlow, a long-time neighbor, said of Christmas’ residence: “This shouldn’t have happened. That house should have been torn down a long time ago. But she was just a poor lady … just like all of us.”

For more than a century, scientists have linked unsafe and crowded housing with a litany of social ills. In a 2002 American Journal of Public Health study, James Krieger and Donna Higgins observe: “An increasing body of evidence has associated housing quality with morbidity from infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, injuries, poor nutrition, and mental disorders.”

Similarly, a 1997 study, led by Harvard criminologist, Robert Sampson, documents a strong tie between poor housing conditions and substantial increases in neighborhood violence.

Citing the work of several dozen other researchers, Krieger and Higgins state: “The home may be a determinant of health. Neighborhood-level effects on health have been documented; these include elevated rates of intentional injury, poor birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, HIV, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, depression, physical inactivity, and all-cause mortality in neighborhoods of low socioeconomic status, independent of individual-level risk factors.”

Many other studies cite poor air quality, noise-related health effects, increased disease prevalence due to improper waste disposal and a whole host of other environmentally driven health consequences. In other words, poor housing can make you sick. It fosters crime; and it can be deadly.

Why then do we allow it to persist? Anyone who’s ever been to a city council meeting has probably witnessed the portion of business dedicated to the declaration of public nuisances, where structures are condemned.

As part of this, property owners routinely come to protest the declaration of their structure as a nuisance. Sometimes it’s warranted, but more often than not, they’re just staving off the inevitable.

All of this points to a two-fold issue facing the city. In the first instance, we have an entrenched unwillingness on the part of local leaders to address the problem. Not just the current group of politicians, but generations of their predecessors have systematically bent to the whim of property owners.

The second part of the problem stems from a real commitment to safe housing. Plainly stated, we wonder if we have an inspections department sufficient to the task and whether there are enough inspectors to do the job. As well, are the inspectors we have sufficiently empowered to foster change.

As a result of these twined perils, the citizens of Pine Bluff are forced to live in neighborhoods that look like something from the third world. Public health suffers needlessly; and Pine Bluff is less than it could be.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If we regard this situation for what it is — a public health crisis — then we are morally obliged to change it. Our leaders must be made to understand this.