Summit makes connection between housing and health

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

“Housing is Health” was the theme of the 4th annual summit of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, but what does it mean?

“If someone has a safe, affordable place to live, they are less likely to go to the emergency room. If they have a safe, affordable place to live they’re more likely to have good health outcomes, to have lower diabetes rates, to have lower cases of stroke,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Several of the many speakers used the phrase “social determinants of health” — things like poverty, bad food and stress.

“I consider social determinants of health to be those things that keep folks awake at night. How am I going to pay for housing? How am I going to pay for child care? How am I going to get to and from work? And this doesn’t just impact specifically a Medicaid population,” said Tracey Perris-Benjamin, director of Clinical Design and Community Health at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

A pilot program at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency is encouraging hospitals to actually develop housing. The first project is in Paterson, where St. Joseph’s Hospital will build 71 affordable housing units on its grounds, mainly for people with chronic conditions.

“We wanted to ensure that any development that occurred within our footprint did not leave out the most vulnerable populations in the city of Paterson. The project is going to be located less than 300 yards from the main entrance of St. Joseph’s Hospital,” said Kenneth Morris, vice president of External Affairs at St. Joseph’s.

“The first time you have an anchor institution at St. Joseph’s Hospital pair up with a community organization to prove an important point, that housing is health care,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh.

Paterson community development pioneer Bob Guarasci told how his organization helped a heroin addict obtain housing.

“Josh got clean. And one of the reasons that Josh got clean is because we were able to offer him safe, decent and affordable housing in one of our projects. And if you talk to Josh, he’s so grateful and he says, ‘I look out my window and I feel blessed,'” said Guarasci.

Former state Treasurer Michelline Davis, now executive vice president at RWJ Barnabas Health, offered some good old homespun inspiration.

“Please stay encouraged and stay in the fight, is that OK for me to say that? We are at war because the vestiges of the fact that the vestiges of poverty and disenfranchisement continue to prevail,” said Davis.

Hospitals are broadening their missions, getting involved in housing projects and social programs in the belief that a healthy community produces healthier individuals.