ROBERT PHILLIPS: A New Health Partnership

OPINION – sac-button-wedCommunity development has a history of being rooted in low-income communities, working to connect communities with programs and capital sources that help the people of those communities help themselves. The example of Mercy Housing’s efforts to keep low-income seniors out of costly nursing homes and living in a more active environment is just one example of the way community development can improve health.

Mercy Housing is a nonprofit affordable housing developer that has participated in the development, operation and financing of more than 39,400 affordable homes serving more than 135,000 people in 11 states – according to their 2013 annual report. Most of those homes were financed using federal community development subsidy programs (Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Community Development Block Grant, and the HOME block grant), in tandem with Community Reinvestment Act driven bank loans and investments, and various types of foundation program investments.

Mercy Housing’s Mission Creek Apartments in San Francisco serves as a great example of what can be done here in the Sacramento region. The Mission Creek Apartments have made Mercy Housing a pioneer in the effort to incorporate health services into housing projects, creating a much better environment for tenants and often saving the health care system sizable amounts of money. This project houses a branch of the public library and boasts views of the bay. It is both close to downtown and within walking distance of a baseball stadium. It also offers adult day care and is part of an innovative program that shifted 50 residents from the city-run nursing home, the Laguna Honda Hospital, to the Mission Creek Apartments.

In a 2010 speech at a Federal Reserve Conference, Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Housing Sister Lillian Murphy described the cost savings to the health sector: “Three years after we started this property, we got a letter from the department of public health that said they had estimated that they are saving $29,000 per resident per year on care for those 50 individuals.” This year, the total savings to the city will be around $5.8 million, not to mention the improved quality of life for each of the residents.

Mission Creek is part of a larger, longer-term effort by Mercy Housing to work with health systems across the country. Their aim, according to their annual report, is to bring its affordable housing development expertise to bear in helping health systems achieve the dual goals of “reducing the cost of uncompensated care by providing stable living environments for the disabled and formerly homeless and healthy safe homes that reduce illness, while strengthening local community relations.”

This lesson is instructive for the 15 zip codes in Sacramento County facing the greatest health disparities, which are largely made up of low-income communities and communities of color. By merging health and community development approaches, greater opportunities for health and well-being are achievable. However, this will require better coordination between, and ultimately the integration of, the community development and public health sectors. It will require communities doing two things:

Helping the health sector to see community development as its partner in addressing the “upstream” factors that influence health.
Helping the community development sector to realize that the health sector’s data and measurements can help build the business case for constructive interventions in Sacramento County’s 15 zip codes that face the greatest health disparities.
Working together, both sectors can build a new, sustainable approach for improving communities and health.

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By Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is the Director of Health Programs at Sierra Health Foundation, where he leads the foundation’s Health Unit and programs including the Healthy Sacramento Coalition, the Respite Partnership Collaborative and the Sacramento Region Health Care Partnership.
Sierra Health Foundation is sponsoring The Empowerment series to help improve health outcomes and reduce health disparities in the region through education and awareness. Sierra Health Foundation is a private philanthropy with a mission to invest in and serve as a catalyst for ideas, partnerships and programs that improve health and quality of life in Northern California.

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