From the Front Lines: Alameda County, California

Conceived and supported by The Kresge Foundation and launched in 2009 to address health issues that deriving from in-home environmental hazards, the Advancing Safe and Healthy Homes Initiative (ASHHI) was a national program that grew from a Kresge Health Program initiative to reduce childhood lead poisoning into a comprehensive effort to address home dangers such as asthma-triggering allergens, fire hazards, substandard insulation, and weatherization; repair problems, like broken steps and railings; and neighborhood nuisances, like abandoned buildings that invite crime. The six ASHHI community sites focused their efforts on local housing units in which they intended to reduce childhood lead poisoning, asthma-related medical events, and home safety hazards through policy making, advocacy/community organizing, and legal enforcement.

A Tale of Two Families

Two years ago, Desmond Dollison and his family started renting a West Oakland house built in the 1900s. It wasn’t in the best shape – paint on one side of the house was peeling off – but the affordable rent sealed the deal for him, his wife, and their two children. Then he took his daughter, a year old at the time, to a routine visit to the doctor, who told him the girl’s blood had toxic levels of lead, a condition that put her at risk of brain damage, a short attention span, and behavioral problems. The culprit? Dollison figured out that the old paint on the house’s exterior was probably lead-based and contaminating the soil in which his daughter loved to play.

“I knew that lead can do damage,” said Dollison, 34, a culinary arts student at Laney College. “I didn’t know it was a problem, moving into a neighborhood and having to worry about lead.” Dollison ended up working with the ACLPPP to lay burlap bags and six inches of mulch over the potentially contaminated soil outside his house last winter. His daughter’s lead level has since dropped, and he urges parents to get their children checked. “Do what you can to protect your kids,” he said. “It shouldn’t be happening to me or anyone else.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are parents like Evelia Servin, 45, of Hayward, who are left wondering years later if they should have stepped in earlier. Servin raised her first son in a run-down house in Mexico. His crib, she recalls, was pressed up to a wall with paint hanging off in shards. Her son, now 21, struggles with attention-deficit disorder. “After learning about lead poisoning and the effects of lead poisoning in children, I strongly believe he was affected,” she said. [5]

Berkeley Bike Tour Reveals Residential Progress

Berkeley residents who happened to come across a group of people on bikes criss-crossing their way through the city one warm spring day recently may have caught a glimpse of the Berkeley Affordable Housing Bike Tour, one of the events held as part of the area’s annual Affordable Housing Week. The group consisted of a variety of housing activists, including some ACLPPP members and representatives from other affordable housing developers, who set out to learn about over 15 affordable housing sites in Downtown, South, and West Berkeley.

Some projects housed the formerly homeless and others specialized in serving people with disabilities, low-income families with children, and/or people with special needs. Some of the housing also offered on-site supportive services, including medical clinics, counseling, resident activities, and classes. The tour gave participants a wide view of both the needs and possibilities for offering safe, maintained, supportive housing for people in the community who otherwise would be living in dire circumstances.

Although much progress has been made, much still needs to be done. The consequences of the lack of affordable housing in the East Bay are many: multiple families crowded into small units, living with lead paint hazards, mold, cockroaches, rats, lack of heat, and safety hazards. These housing problems affect the whole family but especially children who are vulnerable to neurological damage from lead poisoning, chronic asthma episodes set off by unhealthy conditions in the home, and preventable injuries.

Safe, affordable housing not only addresses these housing-related health problems but offers a stability that some families have never experienced. This has been shown to have a dramatic impact on quality of life, mental health and personal development. It can also significantly cut down on healthcare costs, lost school days, and adult loss of productivity. It makes sense on so many levels.

The tour demonstrated that there is a dedicated group of organizations and individuals committed to maintaining and increasing the supply of safe, affordable housing which can be enhanced with an increased level of political will and financial commitment to create more of what works.