Nuvance CEO (opinion): Want healthy communities? Create more housing choice

Dr. John Murphy, right, president and CEO of Nuvance Health, at Danbury Hospital.

Dr. John Murphy, right, president and CEO of Nuvance Health, at Danbury Hospital.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

In Fairfield County, there is a gap of almost 10 years in life expectancy between the wealthiest and poorest communities. Residents of the state’s largest city, Bridgeport, have a life expectancy that is a decade shorter than residents who live 20 minutes down the road in Westport.

Much of a community’s health depends on local conditions like access to clean air, healthy food, stable employment and quality of education. In medicine, we call these social determinants of health. They are the reason some say an individual’s ZIP code predicts their health outcomes more than their genetic code.

Social determinants of health are shaped by policies and investments in the physical environment, especially housing. Access to housing often correlates with access to clean air, healthy food and other social determinants of health.

Housing is the platform from which much of health proceeds. As the pandemic continues to impact the health of our communities, we must recognize the connection between health and housing. We must continue to work to ensure this is reflected in policies and investments in southwestern Connecticut and across the tristate region.

People cannot be healthy without a safe place to live. Without access to stable housing, children will struggle to learn. Adults will struggle to achieve the stable quality of life needed to get a good job. Exposure to pollutants in the home such as mold, or lack of functioning heat, can compromise health, especially for seniors. Even stress from struggling to pay rent every month can cause significant health problems.

Overcrowded housing conditions and poor air quality are more common in communities of color. The community itself is hardly ever responsible for these conditions, which are often the product of policies like redlining, racial steering and decisions about where to house toxic facilities. Nonetheless, it is the community that suffers the consequences.

Overcrowding increases the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, and preexisting respiratory illness caused by proximity to pollution can make symptoms more severe. This is one key reason why the pandemic has had an outsized impact on people of color and people with less means, and it is inexcusable.

While it will take years to stem the harmful impacts of these policies and create healthier communities, our region can take steps now towards improving access to stable housing.

Both Connecticut and New York (the two states where my organization Nuvance Health Systems operates) are currently attempting to legalize accessory dwelling units or ADUs — a secondary home on the same property as a primary home.

Research from AARP shows ADUs offer more housing choice to an entire community while offering particular benefits to senior citizens. Both states can take a step toward increasing housing choice and advancing community health by legalizing ADUs.

Housing in Fairfield County has made national headlines recently and the issue has become highly politicized both locally and in Hartford. In this moment, we must recognize we are not just dealing with buildings, land or neighborhood aesthetics. We are dealing with the health and well-being of our community. In some instances, we’re dealing with the difference between life and death, especially as we live through the pandemic.

Home health aides, grocery clerks, educators and other essential workers support our communities. Yet the gap between housing costs and the incomes associated with these jobs means that in most suburban Fairfield County communities, the majority of service workers are unable to live in the communities they serve.

We cannot express gratitude to essential workers in one sentence, and in the next sentence deny them the opportunity to live in our communities.

Throughout the COVID crisis, I have continued to tell my team at Nuvance Health throughout that we must act with integrity, courage, a sense of optimism and, most importantly, compassion.

Recognizing the intrinsic connection between good health and safe housing — especially as we witness the pandemic’s toll — we must demonstrate compassion when it comes to the issue of housing in our region.

Dr. John Murphy is CEO of Nuvance Health, which includes Norwalk and Danbury hospitals, and a resident of Danbury.