Aging buildings pose major safety threats to millions of Americans

in July 30th, 2021

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America’s buildings are old. An estimated 42% of public housing properties were constructed before 1975 — three years before lead-based paint was banned. Aside from dangerous paint, millions of low-income families live in federally assisted housing that fall short of basic health and safety standards (dry, well ventilated, pest-free, hazard-free, and protective against extreme temperatures). This puts occupants at risk for a number of illnesses including lead poisoning, respiratory illnesses, asthma, and more. In fact, 40% of asthma episodes are caused by preventable triggers in the home.

Okay, so let’s just update these homes? It’s easier said than done.

  • First off, decades of underinvestment (meaning money wasn’t set aside for maintenance or upgrades) has created a backlog of expensive work to be done.
  • The magnitude of this backlog means even basic, life-saving upgrades can take a while. After a fire killed five in Minneapolis due to lacking sprinklers and an outdated stairwell design, the city is finally installing sprinklers in public housing units, but says it will take a decade even with secure funding. Minneapolis has a $150M backlog of essential repairs, and so far has $15M coming annually from Congress.
  • And while Biden’s administration has called for $40B towards public housing improvement (the largest in recent years), the actual cost to update housing far exceeds it. In fact, $40B would only cover New York’s needs.
  • But money alone isn’t enough either. Updates to housing standards (for both public and private housing) face fierce opposition from industry groups and landlords who feel it’s too burdensome to enforce. On top of that, empowered homeowners use zoning regulations to prevent new construction of affordable housing.

Want to help tackle this critical problem? The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a campaign dedicated to ensuring even those with the lowest income have affordable and safe housing. Visit their website to sign their letter to Congress, contact your local representatives, and more.

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