Building healthier places with housing and community development organizations. Where do we go next?

Briefing for public health practitioners, hospital and health insurance administrators, housing providers groups, and community development organizations interested in further engaging in creating health and supporting healthy place-making.

Recent calls to deepen collaboration between the community development and health sectors raise the following question: What is happening on the ground now and what does that mean for the future?

Our study: Using a network survey of 250 community development organizations in the United States of America, we found that the majority of high performing community development organizations have implemented health-promoting activities and strategies, ranging from green and healthy building standards to on-site coordinated health services. Such strategies frequently rely on partnerships with health stakeholders. In addition to providing a typology of health-promoting strategies, we provide three case studies of community development organizations evaluating health outcomes.

We already know: The core work of community development organizations — providing high-quality housing, building resident leadership, and creating economic, social and educational opportunities — implicitly addresses the social causes of health disparities. A previous study examined health related work among twelve associations and networks with stated interest in community health and development, and found that between 30 and 40 percent of respondents reported health related cross-sector collaborative activity. However, less is known about the ways in which community development organizations are explicitly addressing health challenges in their local communities.

What’s new: This analysis provides a new typology of health strategies of community development organizations designed to build health equity. Our study reveals higher levels of engagement by community development organizations than previously documented, and provides a useful guide for understanding health activities and strategies currently underway by high performing community development organizations across the U.S. We find organizations engage in a range of health strategies including: creating programs for community engagement and enhanced financial capability, and developing initiatives to improve community health through community design strategies or healthy food access.  In addition, we provide three case studies of network organizations that evaluate health care utilization patterns and health outcomes, including food security, physical activity levels, health care access, emergency department usage, and others.  Our study further highlights new opportunities to catalyze partnerships between community development and health organizations.

Implications for city policy and practice: Over the past fifty years, the community development field has developed into a sophisticated developer and manager of housing, an expert coordinator of health and social services, and an effective catalyst for healthy place-making. Community development organizations already have deep knowledge of and commitment to improving the quality of life for low- and moderate- income residents through place-conscious strategies. As a result, community development organizations are core contributors and leaders in cross-sector alliances addressing social challenges to health, in collaboration with diverse stakeholders such as municipalities, health insurers, hospitals and other health providers. Such collective responses to community health challenges show promise, as indicated by documented outcomes in diverse communities. Our article shows how community development organizations can deepen their work to address the social determinants of health. By working more closely with community development organizations, cities can improve the health of their residents and make all communities places of opportunity.

Full article: Building healthy places: How are community development organizations contributing?

Authors: Alina Schnake-Mahl (@Alinasmahl) and Sarah Norman (@norman1729). Information also via @Neighborworks