Study: 1 in 3 homes in metro areas could pose health risks

One in three homes in U.S. metropolitan areas have at least one problem such as water leaks, peeling paint, holes or rodents that could harm residents’ health or safety, according to a first-of-its-kind study to be released Thursday.

“The sheer numbers of homes impacted are alarming,” says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, a non-profit research group that used Census Bureau data for the study.

“It is a wake-up call,” says Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The report validates what we’ve been saying at HUD, that we need to restore homes. … You can’t be healthy if your house is sick.”

Efforts to address all health risks posed by housing — similar to steps taken to remove lead and asbestos — are increasing. Morley says poor indoor air causes up to 40% of asthma, which has nearly tripled among children since 1980.

The acting U.S. surgeon general, Rear Adm. Steven Galson, issued a “call to action” in June to promote healthy housing. Sims says HUD is moving toward a requirement that all its projects meet new healthy housing standards.

Private programs that certify homes as “green” now require builders to take steps to prevent moisture and ensure clean air.

The study is the first to compare metro areas based on 20 health-related housing characteristics in the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. It finds:

  • Among cities with the highest rates of healthy homes were Charlotte, Anaheim, Calif., and Atlanta. Oakland, San Francisco and New York City were among those ranked lowest.
  • The most common problem: water leaks, which can cause mold that can trigger allergies and asthma.
  • 36%, or about one in three homes in metro areas nationwide, had at least one housing problem in the most recent 2007 survey.
  • In 45 metro areas studied more extensively, 42% of homes reported at least one problem on surveys taken from 1998 to 2007.

The data are “limited and mixed” but the best available, says Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

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