Healthier homes

New thinking goes beyond weatherization with holistic approach to improve kids' lives

December 08, 2009|By Thomas E. Wilcox

Thanks to expanding school-readiness efforts, systemic change in the Baltimore public schools and enhanced out-of-school opportunities, Baltimore is making real progress in giving young people a better opportunity to lead productive lives. But many children in the city still must overcome daunting obstacles to success - sometimes right inside their own homes.

A Baltimore child will be unlikely to read, learn and do his homework at night if his home isn't heated. Young Baltimoreans who live in homes plagued with toxic leaded dust risk having their cognitive development permanently impaired. And Baltimore kids who suffer from asthma - often triggered by environmental hazards in the home - risk falling behind in class and, eventually, in the workplace.

In other words, poor housing contributes to poor outcomes for tens of thousands of children in our city.

For many years, we have looked at these kinds of problems in isolation: some people working on weatherizing homes, others attacking lead paint problems and still others focused on asthma prevention.

The good news is that Baltimore is at the forefront of a new, more holistic approach that seeks to make homes safer, greener and healthier.

This Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, a true public-private partnership, is at work now in Baltimore and cities across the country. The goal is to tap into resources in government, the nonprofit world and the private sector to tackle a range of housing problems in lower-income communities that have long been neglected economically.

The initiative grew from an opportunity presented by the federal stimulus legislation, which includes $8 billion to weatherize homes. Weatherizing makes good sense, but making homes more energy-efficient - by sealing up windows, for example - may inadvertently intensify health hazards from lead paint, allergens and mold. Weatherization alone could prove to be incomplete and inefficient by failing to capture larger opportunities.

Instead, Baltimore nonprofits are training crews to handle weatherization safely and to cost-effectively reduce health and safety hazards in the home at the same time. Let's capture the moment to make these homes both greener and healthier.

In Baltimore, the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative is offering interventions that ensure that weather and pests are kept out, the air inside is free of contaminants and the home is safer for children and their families. For residents, utility costs are reduced, and children in these homes will face reduced risk from lead paint and other hazards.

An added benefit is that the initiative is cross-training workers to carry out weatherization and hazard-reduction work, giving them a path to a living-wage career in the fast-growing green economy.

Baltimore's Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning is on track to demonstrate this approach in 450 homes and will increase the scope of the project significantly over time. The cost of making each home green, healthy and safe is averaging $7,500, which is less than what it would cost for multiple crews to handle the various work components. Baltimore's weatherization program is also expanding its focus to make sure homes are healthy and energy-secure.

It is money well spent, as every dollar invested in this project will return far more to society through reduced health costs and through dividends created when more of our kids grow up healthy and ready to succeed.

The lead poisoning coalition has been hard at work for years on this holistic approach to improving housing and is a key partner in the new initiative here and nationally. The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation has been actively promoting the Green and Healthy Homes approach across the country.

Now the Obama administration, led by Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, has embraced the concept and is working hard to tear down bureaucratic boundaries that inhibit agencies from working closely together. As a result, federal agencies are coordinating efforts, and local Green and Healthy Homes pilot programs have been launched in 10 cities.

Among those joining in the local effort are foundations, the Baltimore housing and health departments, the Maryland Energy Administration, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge, managed by the Baltimore Community Foundation and the city's Office of Sustainability.

People rightly complain when bureaucratic barriers or narrow thinking prevent us from adopting broad approaches to social problems. This time we are getting it right, beginning here in Baltimore.

We must ensure that all of our children grow up in safe, healthy homes. We now have a road map to begin doing just that.

Thomas E. Wilcox is president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His e-mail is twilcox@bcf.org.

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