Health at Home During COVID-19 and Beyond

The Jackson at Woodlawn Park in Chicago, IL. Image courtesy of Preservation of Affordable Housing.

June 23, 2020- With so many people sheltering in place to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, the importance of a stable, healthy home is more evident than ever. SAHF members work all over the country to create quality homes that support wellness and opportunity for people with limited economic means. SAHF and its members understand that a stable home can support both physical and mental health. From indoor air quality to the ability to control your own home environment and life choices, where you live can be a pillar or a barrier to well-being.

As many people stay home and indoors to limit the spread of COVID-19 and now think about how to return to communal spaces, there is more discussion about the health of the built environment. Before COVID-19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that most Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. Now, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the portion of time people are spending in their homes has increased. Affordable housing owners, frontline staff and residents are looking for how homes can support their health now. Public health experts at Harvard  have laid out key features for healthy buildings:

  • Ventilation
  • Air quality
  • Thermal health
  • Moisture
  • Dust and Pests
  • Safety and Security
  • Water Quality
  • Noise
  • Lighting and Views

Ventilation has a strong relationship to indoor air quality and to SAHF members’ longstanding commitment to energy efficiency; it is also an area of particular interest in response to COVID-19. Ongoing research is looking into the role air conditioning and indoor ventilation systems may play in spreading the virus, but at this time these systems are not considered a primary transmission mode. However, well-managed ventilation systems can support health by reducing exposure through dilution and filtration. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and their European counterpart have provided guidance for building operations to improve indoor environmental health, including:

  • Increase outdoor air ventilation and eliminate recirculation to the extent feasible to maintain thermal comfort.
  • For central air systems, improve filtration to the MERV-13 or the highest compatible with the filter rack, and seal edges of the filter to limit bypass.
  • Run systems for longer hours, if possible 24/7, to enhance the two actions above.
  • Consider portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters.

For properties without mechanical ventilation, simply opening windows will also improve airflows and dilute contaminated air. 

While a stable and healthy home can be an important support for mental health and well-being, prolonged periods of confinement during this pandemic are causing many of us to experience mental-health challenges including feelings of confinement and social isolation, as well as restrictions to routines and increased financial stress. This can lead to feelings of loss over control of one’s own life and uncertainty about the future. SAHF and its members value resident voice and agency as fundamental to health and well-being. Owners and operators can help support well-being while attending to the health of buildings by engaging residents in systems and procedures changes and sharing information on how systems operate. Through our energy and water conservation work, SAHF has deepened  our understanding of resident benefits as a driving impact of our retrofit work. Many of the same lessons and tools about how to engage and communicate with residents can be applied to updated procedures to support health. Supporting residents’ ability to make meaningful choices about their lives during these unprecedented times is a key aspect to healthy housing and equitable communities.

The pandemic will no doubt lead to lessons on how to promote greater health and well-being.  That begins with an investment in healthy homes and a voice for the people that live in them.

-Rebecca Schaaf, Senior VP Energy, Tawechote Wongbuphanimitr, Energy Associate, Sandra Serna, VP Health & Housing, and Sara Autori, Health & Housing Associate