DPH: Unaffordable housing is bad for your health

Mind the affordability gap: The numbers represent how many full-time jobs you'd need at minimum wage to pay the rent.

To cover rent on a two-bedroom apartment at "fair market value" in SoMa, a San Francisco minimum-wage earner would have to work 7.4 full-time jobs.

That jaw-dropper of a statistic is just one tidbit in a fascinating dataset featured in a recently published interactive map plotting housing affordability in San Francisco neighborhoods. Combining data from Craigslist and PadMapper, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and the local minimum wage ($10.24 per hour, widely regarded as generous), the map isn’t the handiwork of affordable housing activists. [Note: this reflects the 2012 minimum wage, the rate now stands at $10.55.]

Instead, it was created by the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Program on Health, Equity and Sustainability. To view the full map and dig around for data on your neighborhood of interest, go here.

The embedded dataset reveals that the median income in SoMa is $91,000 lower than the $158,000 one would need to afford renting a market-rate two-bedroom. This figure, expressed as $-91,000, is known as the “affordability gap,” and the map plots these gaps neighborhood by neighborhood.

It was rolled out as part of a weeklong effort to raise public awareness about the link between affordable housing and public health, explains Cyndy Comerford, manager of planning and fiscal policy at the Environmental Health division of DPH. The reason? “Unmet housing needs in San Francisco can result in significant public health concerns,” Comerford says.

A lack of affordable rental housing can push more tenants into substandard or overcrowded living situations, she adds. Housing units within reach for lower income residents might be squeezed up against a highway, for instance, putting tenants in close proximity to noise, traffic, or air pollution, thus increasing their risks for experiencing heart or respiratory problems. Substandard housing also makes lead or mold exposure more likely, possibly triggering serious health issues over time.

For residents who fork over a significant percentage of their income for rent, other problems can arise. “It leaves little money for other provisions,” such as healthy food or preventative health care, Comerford adds, so low-income tenants have a higher likelihood of malnourishment or preventable disease related to nutrition.

The map is part of a broader DPH initiative known as the Sustainable Communities Index, which provides datasets for more than 100 health indicators. There’s a whole section on housing, which even covers the negative health effects of eviction: “Involuntary displacement contributes to stress, loss of supportive social networks and increased risk for substandard housing conditions and overcrowding,” DPH points out.

More information is yet to come: “Every day this week, we’ll put out a new bit of information around health and housing,” Comerford says.

Taking a broader view, it appears that sweeping cuts to public programs will present a whole new set of challenges for lower-income populations who have a higher risk of housing-related health problems. As a New York Times opinion piece highlighting the public health ramifications of austerity measures notes, “there are warning signs … that health trends are worsening. Prescriptions for antidepressants have soared. Three-quarters of a million people (particularly out-of-work young men) have turned to binge drinking. Over five million Americans lost access to health care in the recession because they lost their jobs.”

Amid all this, as a consequence of the $85 billion “sequester” that began on March 1, “Public housing budgets will be cut by nearly $2 billion this year," the New York Times piece continues, "even while 1.4 million homes are in foreclosure.”