Housing code for healthier lives

Nov 7, 2019

Fellow Eric Burmeister Executive Director, Polk County Housing Trust Fund
Josh Hellyer Policy and Communications Coordinator, Polk County Housing Trust Fund

This post shares Josh and Eric's journey as fellows in the first cohort and was first published in September 2019.

The Journey

The fellowship began with Josh Hellyer, policy and communications coordinator for the Polk County Housing Trust Fund (PCHTF). Josh was approached by Mid-Iowa Health Foundation (MIHF) about joining the fellowship because of his work in using data to justify and bring clarity to the need for affordable and healthy housing. Josh also was supporting Healthy Homes Des Moines, an effort to provide housing repairs to low-income homeowners to minimize hospital visits related to pediatric asthma. As head of PCHTF, Eric Burmeister saw that Josh had a lot of skill in advocacy but was reluctant to do it.

“The advocacy hat was always the one least comfortable for Josh, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t ultimately make a good public policy leader in this community,” says Eric. “The fellowship was to nurture the skill and the connection with the community.”

Eric also recognized the value in Josh participating in the fellowship, even though that meant shifting some work. “I was more concerned about whether he develops into someone who is valuable to the community,” he says.

But about six months into the fellowship, Josh moved out of state. MIHF did not want to lose the partnership with PCHTF, so Eric took on the work. In the transition, Eric focused on a new opportunity: influencing how the city of Des Moines implements its new neighborhood revitalization plan.

“It wasn’t just about keeping Healthy Homes alive,” says Eric. “It’s about recognizing there are other conversations to be had where Polk County Housing Trust Fund could and should and is at the table where health issues come into play.”

Eric has been executive director for nine years, moving PCHTF from a passive grant funder into an advocate for affordable housing. Coming into the role outside of the nonprofit space, he’s had to learn the research around the issues, and in that process, has come to better appreciate how housing impacts one’s health.

The Issue

If a property owner falls in the extremely low-income category (less than 80 percent median area income) and needs assistance with a roof, a sewer line, windows, or another major project, PCHTF can help them make those repairs. Healthy Homes Des Moines expanded its service to consider not just the physical condition of a house, but also environmental concerns that can impact health.

“How do you move upstream so a kid doesn’t even have to get sick before someone asks questions? It was a paradigm shift for how the Trust Fund thinks about how to allocate money,” says Eric, and that’s led the organization to form new partners within the health care system.

Josh’s work focused on how to embed health considerations into the rental code that inspectors would look for when inspecting rental properties. The change would require the city to have more capacity to inspect properties and enforce code, and thus far, the city’s limited budget hasn’t allowed it to hire more inspectors.

Successes

Inheriting this project from Josh, Eric has had the challenge of maintaining this work with other priorities. In addition, the city is in a process of revamping its zoning code and neighborhood redevelopment plans, with a focus on maintaining and increasing home values. Several factors have made it difficult to find success.

Still, Eric has seen progress: The city of Des Moines successfully passing the local option sales tax has re-opened the door on discussions to expand rental code, with potential funding to support it. Eric expects that new inspectors will be brought on board. PCHTF is working on a plan to train new rental inspectors on rental code that can impact tenant health, even though the code is not mandated, and is working with developers to voluntarily make changes, such as using laminate flooring instead of carpeting.

“I think we’ve made our case to the community that there is this connection between housing and health,” says Eric. “I think we’re past having skepticism in the community. The next thing is what can we do about it and what are we going to do about it when the problem is so big.”

Lessons Learned

A lesson Eric has absorbed through his experience in advocacy is that, at a certain point, you can change topics or jobs, “but really it becomes about the connections you have with the community that makes you so effective.”

Benefits of the Fellowship

The fellowship is ensuring that health is a consideration in conversations around housing. Eric sees this as especially needed in an environment where conversations primarily focus on increasing housing values and neighborhoods with poor housing conditions are being overlooked.

The Future

Eric recognizes that two years is not enough time to create the large-scale change that’s needed to address this issue. One major challenge he sees for Des Moines is the aging stock of houses and the extent of repairs needed to make the homes healthy, which would require billions in investments to address.

“Long-term change in this area will require a constant drum beat of health and housing advocates reminding policy makers that the health of Des Moines residents can be improved by improving their living conditions,” says Eric. “The ‘cost’ to the city by including health-related requirements in its rental code is nothing, and the cost of inspectors to enforce the code is minimal, compared with the quality of life considerations for tenants.”

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