BUSSW faculty receive RWJF grant to explore a question with housing policy implications

Monday, November 20, 2017

Does the value of housing assistance impact health outcomes?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded $99,850 to two BUSSW faculty members affiliated with the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health (CISWH) at Boston University School of Social Work (BUSSW). Thomas Byrne, assistant professor, BUSSW, and Daniel P. Miller, associate professor, BUSSW, will pursue a research project that will examine whether the monetary value of federal housing assistance has an impact on the health of those who receive assistance.

While there is broad agreement that housing is an important social determinant of health and some evidence that housing assistance has a positive impact on health, research on the impact of federal low-income housing programs on health outcomes is limited. No study to date has explored whether the monetary value of housing assistance across households translates into differences in health outcomes.

“Sometimes the best research ideas come out of informal conversations with a colleague about things that you’re both interested in,” said Byrne. “We wanted to get beyond considering housing assistance as simply a yes-no indicator to explore whether variations in the monetary value of housing assistance received translates into meaningful differences in health outcomes.”

“This project is a convergence of our shared interest in policy and the well-being of low-income Americans,” said Miller. “The availability of a new dataset provided the catalyst that crystallized these ideas and helped them come together in a more coherent way.”

The research will leverage a newly available dataset that links data from two sources: The National Health Interview Survey from 1999 to 2012 and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administrative records from 1999 to 2014. These two data sources have been linked and made available to researchers as a restricted-use dataset through the National Center for Health Statistics. The data make it possible for Byrne and Miller to use a novel approach to calculate the value of housing assistance, one that will take into account a wide range of health outcomes including mental health, chronic and acute health conditions, and health care access; both adult and child health outcomes; and variations in cost of living across communities. As opposed to self-reported data which are prone to error, the more robust HUD data will allow the researchers to draw stronger conclusions about the causal relationship between housing assistance and health. Byrne and Miller anticipate a sample size of about 59,000 households nationwide, including both households receiving federal housing assistance and those who are eligible for but not receiving assistance.

The research will also consider the effect on health outcomes of several types of housing assistance programs that HUD offers to the roughly 9.8 million individuals receiving assistance. It will compare HUD housing assistance programs offered in three categories: the housing voucher program, public housing, and multifamily programs.

The grant is one of nine awarded to research teams across the country as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action (P4A) research program. P4A’s goal is to generate actionable evidence about how, and how well, laws and policies work to promote population health, well-being, and equity. Byrne’s and Miller’s focus on how public housing assistance can impact health will contribute to the RWJF’s vision of building a culture of health that enables everyone in America to live longer, healthier lives.

“We are excited to be a part of an initiative that supports applied research that has a bearing on the health of people in the country,” said Miller. “The projects funded by the P4A program have immediate, actionable evidence attached to them.”

“It aligns closely with our goal to conduct research that has immediate relevance for policy conversations that can make people’s lives better,” added Byrne. “In the short term, this study will have a direct bearing on housing policy proposals under consideration. For example, findings from this study would speak directly to the potential health impacts of an increase in rent contribution from 30% to 35% of household income for those who receive housing assistance. Longer term, it might bolster the case for improving health outcomes by expanding housing assistance beyond the one-in-four eligible households who currently receive this scarce benefit.”

“This project contributes toward improving health equity, which is at the heart of our Center’s vision,” said Sara S. Bachman, Paul Farmer professor at the BUSSW, research professor of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health, and director of the CISWH. “That requires that we look beyond the health care system and use an upstream approach to improving population health by advocating for policy change more broadly. This research will provide advocates with a powerful tool to demonstrate to policy makers how improvements in housing policy can achieve a healthier population.”

“We pride ourselves at the BUSSW on our innovative research that informs social work practice and advocacy to advance a more just and compassionate society,” said Judith G. Gonyea, professor and dean ad interim, BUSSW. “By developing a deeper understanding of the interaction of health and housing, a key social determinant of health, this research has the potential to drive change that can promote the health and well-being of those affected by racial, social, and economic inequities.”

Learn more about the project Does the Value of Housing Assistance Impact Health Outcomes?

This work was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program.