Picture yourself in your home. Take a look around. What do you see? How do you feel? Do you feel comfortable, calm, in control? Is your home a refuge? Do you feel secure? Or do you feel tense? Are you uncomfortable, unmotivated, or fearful? When you look around, do you become uneasy or stressed?
In recent years, public health studies have started to document what we already know intuitively – that our surroundings affect us. Not just physically but also mentally. Poor apartment conditions, neighborhood dynamics, and lack of affordable housing options can combine to create a myriad of external stressors. And for low-income tenants with few other options, these stressors can take a profound psychological toll.
As a member of the housing team, I often hear tenants describe the negative effects that poor housing conditions have on their emotional well being. One client said he felt anxious sitting on his couch because roaches would crawl over his arm. Another man described lying awake for hours waiting for bedbugs to bite. A father expressed concern that his two-year-old would stick her finger into an uncovered outlet. Another parent said her kids were scared to go to the bathroom at night because of mice. One woman came close to tears when she described the despair and frustration she felt every time her landlord ignored her pleas for repairs.
At the other end of the spectrum, I also get to hear how safe and healthy homes can be transformative for individuals. One of the most powerful moments I have had at Legal Aid was hearing a tenant talk about the new apartment she obtained with her voucher. “When I walk through my front door, and I see the fresh paint, new carpets, and ceiling trim,” she said, “it makes me feel like a queen. I feel like I can turn a new page in life and be a better person.” She described how leaving her old apartment, which was filled with mice, roaches and other housing code violations, made her feel energized and liberated. Her new surroundings gave her motivation to start working towards her goals – leaving her abusive boyfriend, finding a job, and spending more time with her family.
This woman’s newfound resolve epitomizes the critical role that housing conditions play on our emotional health. It is also a reminder of why we must be vigilant in enforcing the housing code, and why we must continue to advocate for safe, affordable, and healthy housing for low-income families.