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Green Renovation and Senior Living – Three Years of Healthier, Happier Residents

Three recent articles illustrate how innovative green building practices and amenities help ensure that low-income seniors feel healthier and stay mobile, active, social, and most of all, independent. “Self-Reported Health Outcomes Associated with Green-Renovated Public Housing among Primarily Elderly Residents,” a study completed by the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) in 2013 and published in January 2015 by the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, found that residents have improved mental and general physical health one year after a green renovation, including fewer falls and less exposure to tobacco smoke. “Orness Orness Plaza Atrium, pre-renovation. Photos courtesy of Blumentals/Architecture.Renovation Makes Residents Happier” (Mankato Free Press, July 11) indicates that these health improvements are continuing today as residents utilize the innovative designs developers incorporated in their building to increase walking, exercise, and social engagement. “Renovating Senior Complexes to Be Green, Healthy, and Connected,” (Shelterforce, posted May 25) discusses these and other innovative design practices developers and architects are using to promote health and wellness in affordable senior complexes.

Orness Plaza in Mankato, MN, is a low-income apartment building with 101 independent living units housing primarily elderly residents. Between 2010 and 2012, the building underwent a green renovation, complete with improved ventilation, moisture and mold reduction, and various safety measures. Renovations were funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Competitive Capital grant, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, as well as the Mankato Economic Development Authority, Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, and the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund.

NCHH’s HUD-funded “Green Rehabilitation of Elder Apartment Treatments” ("GREAT") study was one of the nation’s first examinations of the health outcomes among older Americans following green renovation. While healthy housing has traditionally focused on childhood diseases and injuries associated with housing quality, the GREAT study asked whether improvements might also occur in the at-risk and growing population of low-income elders. The GREAT study concluded that, one year after the green renovation, residents’ mental and general physical health improved, falls were less frequent, and exposure to tobacco smoke was reduced. The Mankato Free Press article describes how, three years after the renovation was completed, residents continue to benefit both mentally and physically, walking along the indoor paths bordered by gardens and pools and participating in fitness programs in an exercise room that was part of the renovation design.

In tOrness Plaza Atrium, post-renovation. Photos courtesy of Blumentals/Architecture.he Shelterforce article, NCHH summarizes interviews with architects and developers who work in senior housing construction and renovation. Recognizing that no amount of grab bars and handrails can minimize risk factors caused by lack of exercise and physical activity, developers are beginning to use innovative design practices that help to improve seniors’ lives and health, including building fitness facilities and exercise programs like those mentioned in the Mankato Free Press article, incorporating wayfinding measures (design elements that help residents recognize where they are) into their building plans, and creating spaces that encourage resident social engagement. The majority of developers interviewed indicated only negligible differences between development costs for family housing and senior housing; however, some indicated a potential of 2% to 10% higher costs (numerous developers disputed others’ claims of costs above 3%) for senior housing due to additional safety features. On the other hand, costs related to operations and maintenance tend to be lower in senior housing because seniors generally cause less wear and tear on building structures and have lower utility usage.

Cost savings from lower operations, maintenance, and energy costs help balance slightly increased costs of developing housing for low-income elderly residents. Affordable senior housing could help reduce the rising costs of healthcare and help seniors maintain their independence longer.

Photos of the Orness Plaza atrium pre-renovation (upper picture) and post-renovation (lower picture) courtesy of Blumentals/Architecture, Inc.

NCHH Takes to the Hill

Last Tuesday, March 17, a small but mighty group, led by Julie Kruse, NCHH's Director of Policy, visited 22 congressional offices in Washington, DC, to recommend full funding in fiscal year (FY) 2016 for three crucially important federal programs. Due to governmental belt-tightening over the last several years, funding to these programs was cut drastically; and while some of the funding has been partially restored, there is still much work for these programs to do, and every dollar is important.

NCHH is asking for the CDC's Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to receive $29,257,000 (up from $15,222,000 in FY15), CDC’s National Asthma Control Program to receive $30,596,000 (up from $27,528,000 in FY15), and HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes to receive $120,000,000, up from $110 million in FY15. A recent history of appropriations for these programs is available here.

Seventeen attendees, hailing from seven target states (North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, and Maryland), joined Ms. Kruse, Acting Director Jonathan Wilson, and Michael McKnight from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative on Capitol Hill to present to senators and representatives in all six congressional office buildings. Their purpose was to educate members of Congress who will soon make critical funding decisions on the importance and impact of lead poisoning prevention, lead hazard control, and healthy homes programs for their constituents’ respective states and districts. Parents whose children were impacted by lead hazards in the home, children’s health advocates, and public health and healthy housing practitioners all joined Ms. Kruse and Mr. Wilson to share their stories.

Omar Bah told senators Jack Reed (D, RI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D, RI) and representatives David Cicilline (D, RI-1) and James Langevin (D, RI-2) how a HUD-funded remediation grant from the City of Providence made it possible for him and his wife to afford the necessary improvements to the home that saved his family from lead poisoning. Mr. Bah is an African refugee who came to the U.S. in 2007 with his wife, Teddi, to start a new life. They bought an older home in Rhode Island that they suspected might be a lead hazard, but all of their savings had gone toward their house purchase.

Liz Haverington Silvia of Newport, Rhode Island, also met with congressmen Reed, Whitehouse, Langevin, and Cicilline. She explained how her state’s required blood screening process detected lead in her little boy’s system, the result of her DIY renovation project that was not performed properly—because she didn’t realize that lead was present, something that happens more often than anyone would like to admit. Liz was thankful that the state-mandated screening caught the problem so early, as her son does not appear to suffer any long-term consequences of his lead exposure. She also described the forgivable loan, courtesy of her state and local lead programs, that financed the essential repairs to her home, making it lead-safe after nearly 90 years.

Chris Corcoran, a project manager at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, spoke to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s (R, CT-3) office about how his organization and their clients benefit from government money and what they could accomplish with additional funding.

Also in attendance at the meetings was Ms. Lenora Smith from the Partnership Effort for the Advancement of Children’s Health (PEACH), out of Durham, North Carolina. Ms. Smith, supported by her associate, Lawrence Little, artist Damita Hicks, retired social worker and community advocate Dianne Brown, code enforcement officer and chief precinct judge Lester Smith, and Michael McKnight from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, spoke to Representative David Price (D, NC-4) about how additional funding would bolster Durham Mayor William V. Bell’s Poverty Reduction Initiative. Ms. Smith specifically referenced Census Tract 10.01, an area of Durham, North Carolina, which is predominantly occupied by African Americans (66.2%) and Latinos (24.3%), in which 61% of residents reported income below poverty level, and in which the average year of construction was 1933. The majority of homes in Census Tract 10.01 require what HUD would consider “major repairs.” The largest population within the census tract are kids below the age of six (approximately 10%); this demographic is the one most likely to suffer from lead poisoning and is at risk for several other home hazards.

Betty Cantley with her sons, circa 1994. Jason Cantley is sitting in the baby seat.Betty Cantley of Cleveland, Ohio, had a very different tale to tell: Her son, Jason, was poisoned as an infant and suffered permanent injury, the result of a contractor renovation that failed to meet lead safety requirements. “[W]hen he started breathing it in,” she told Representative Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), “he was less than a month old; his brain was developing, and his synapses were forming. It was the most crucial point of his life.” Betty’s compelling story described the struggles of a family faced with the news that their son was needlessly poisoned, how they coped, and how essential programs at all governmental levels helped her boy to graduate from high school and become a productive member of society.

These stories from the field illustrate how important it is that government funding to these programs not only stays intact but is fully restored or, better, increased.

Ultimately, the NCHH cadre met with six members of Congress directly, five supportive Republican offices that are new to the issue, and the leading Democrats on the health and housing funding subcommittees in the House and Senate and on the full Senate appropriations committee. We received commitments from the subcommittee leads to fight for full funding. Four representatives NCHH met with added their signature to the House funding letter; in total, 24 representatives signed, which was five more than last year. The Senate funding letter is still open as of this writing and currently has 16 signatures, four of whom met with NCHH’s group.

All in all, it was a very productive St. Patrick's Day!

Fund Healthy Housing NOW!

ACT NOW to ensure continued funding for HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes and CDC’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program!

The home is the most dangerous place for U.S. families. Nearly six million families live in housing rivaling that of developing countries, with broken heating and plumbing, holes in walls and windows, roach and rodent infestation, falling plaster, crumbling foundations, and leaking roofs. Millions more in all 50 states live in housing with serious health and safety hazards including mold, exposed wiring, radon, unvented heaters, toxic chemicals, broken stairs, missing smoke detectors, and other hazards. Home-based interventions to address health hazards improve health and have a large return on investment: Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17 to $221, and each dollar invested in asthma home-based interventions that include education and remediation results in a return of $5.30 to $14.00.

That's why it makes both great common sense and great fiscal sense to direct more funding to the critical government programs that invest money in America's future by making homes safer and healthier. Unfortunately, these programs are always in serious danger of debilitating budget cutting.

Please take these simple steps now to ensure healthy homes and lead hazard control and lead /poisoning prevention programs continue!

STEP 1: SIGN your organization on to the attached letter to Congress for HUD and CDC funding.

Click here to sign on to the attached letter. And forward these links to your networks!

STEP 2: CALL your representative in the U.S. House!

1. Call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202.224.3121 and ask to be connected to your representative. (If you don't know who your representative is, the switchboard can tell you based on your address.)

2. Ask to speak with the staff person who handles the health or housing issues for the office.

3. When you reach or leave a message for the staffer (or speak to the receptionist if the staffer is not available), tell him or her:

  • "I'm calling to urge Representative [representative's last name] to sign on to the Congresswoman Slaughter sign-on letter in support of healthy homes and lead poisoning prevention funding for HUD and CDC. The sign-on letter deadline is March 19.
  • "I also urge the representative to submit a request to the health appropriations subcommittee to fund CDC’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at $29 million.
  • "These funds will ensure the protection of over 500,000 lead-poisoned children who need CDC-funded services.
  • "Thank you!"

STEP 3: Call your senators! (Coming soon!)

Only you can help us win this budget battle.

EPA Safer Choices

Bewildered by the vast number of cleaning products available when shopping online or in your local supermarket? Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a way to narrow your choices of products so you make your home healthier. Just look for the “Safer Choice” logo on the product. Use EPA’s search engine to check whether your favorite brand carries the label.

If you’re worried about fragrances irritating your eyes or lungs, look for labels with "Fragrance Free" in the upper left corner. Unlike products advertised as “unscented,” which contain masking fragrances to hide the chemical smell, these products are what they claim to be – fragrance-free.

The logo replaces the cumbersome "Design for the Environment” ("DfE") logo that you may have seen on some products in recent years. EPA’s action comes just over a year after Walmart committed to having all of its private brand cleaning products meet the DfE (now Safer Choice) standards by January 2015. 

So, how do you know the Safer Choice products are actually safer? EPA requires that manufacturers disclose all ingredients, including fragrances, to a third party who ensures that the products meet the agency’s strict criteria for safety and performance. It also sets packaging standards and bans fragrances that government agencies in the U.S. and Europe have identified as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or sensitizers. And, in a relatively new feature, it audits the products for compliance. 

Finally, EPA enables you to make your own decision about safety by requiring that makers of Safer Choice-labeled products disclose all ingredients on the company’s website and reference the Web page on the product label. With this option, if you’re worried about a particular ingredient, you can make sure it’s not in the product. 

Note that there is an important limit to disclosure. To balance trade secret concerns for fragrances, EPA allows companies to provide a list of chemicals used across their various brands, rather than revealing the specific ingredients of a single product. If you want to know what the ingredients are in a single product, your only option appears to be S.C. Johnson. It’s the only firm we know of that goes a step beyond EPA’s labeling standards and names all of the ingredients in each product.

So, next time you’re shopping for cleaning products, look for EPA’s Safer Choice logo for a healthier home.

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