On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council will consider a rental registry that mandates inspections to improve the living conditions of renters in New Orleans. The Healthy Homes Ordinance has stirred debate between housing advocates and organized landlord interests. Advocates describe the socioeconomic costs of substandard housing for tenants, who are largely powerless to use formal mechanisms, like code enforcement, to improve their living conditions.

The Louisiana Public Health Institute, with its mission to align action for health, supports this ordinance. There is a direct link between housing and health, with respiratory conditions, like asthma, directly associated with home quality. Substandard housing conditions are also associated with elevated incidents of poisonings and injuries, along with hypertension and substance abuse. Women and children are most vulnerable.

The research on health and housing, combined with LPHI’s own analyses of hospital and clinic discharge data, provide support for this legislation. When LPHI analyzed data on asthma and hypertension, we saw large disparities between black and white residents. Moreover, these disparities concentrate in disadvantaged parts of the city where housing stock is dilapidated and blighted.

We also support the ordinance as a way to empower tenants and lessen the burden largely placed on the most vulnerable of our city. Renters under the current system don’t have the power to use existing tools, like Code Enforcement, without the real threat of landlord retribution through eviction — which has been voiced by several advocates previously in the council chambers.

Until recently, there was little research on eviction. However, researchers, such as sociologist Matthew Desmond from Harvard University, are now revealing that the socio-economically disadvantaged move much more frequently than others, and their moves are often from poor neighborhoods into poorer neighborhoods. Eviction is much more common than previously believed and a key mechanism driving this trend. Hence, fears voiced in the council chambers are very real. The research also shows eviction makes people poorer and has negative health effects, particularly on stress, depression, and self-reported overall health. Eviction perpetuates lasting, intergenerational poverty.

The new research clarifies what it means to ask individuals in lesser positions of power to solve housing problems themselves through existing solutions, like Code Enforcement. It means we are asking them to risk permanent downward mobility for themselves and their families. Such an outcome maintains the negative health effects that we are committed to improving, and it reinforces imbalances of power, thus eliminating the chances for health equity.

Substandard housing and the problems it creates are far too pervasive in New Orleans. Access to affordable, decent housing is a public health concern. LPHI supports the Healthy Homes Ordinance as a step in the right direction to improving power balances to address poor health.

George Hobor

 LPHI director of healthy communities

New Orleans