Consider the following numbers: 1, 10, 15, 71 and 86.
▪ 1 is the number of miles between Downtown Miami and Overtown.
▪ 10 is the number of minutes it takes to make the walk between those two areas.
▪ 15 is the difference in number of years babies are expected to live from the start of that walk to the end.
▪ 71 is the average life expectancy in Overtown. For context, the average life expectancy in the United States reached 71 . . . in 1970.
▪ 86 is the average life expectancy in Downtown. For context, the current average life expectancy in the United States is 79.
One mile. Ten minutes. Fifteen years.
These numbers are on vivid display in a new map released recently by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showing life expectancy by ZIP codes across Miami. And it begs the question: How can communities so close together be so far apart in terms of how long and how well their residents live?
Typically, we think of health in terms of traditional healthcare, such as doctors we see or prescription medications we take. And there’s no doubt that access to quality, affordable healthcare is critical. We’re all fortunate in Miami to have world-class medical professionals and facilities in our back yard.
But that’s only one part of the equation. An even bigger part is what affects our health outside the doctor’s office or pharmacy, such as the ability to receive a good education, secure a job that lets us support our family, have access to nutritious food and engage in regular physical activity in a safe place. In fact, such things can have an ever greater impact on our health in the long-run.
I know firsthand that housing is also directly connected to health. The benefits of home ownership to individual families are clear. Homeowners report higher self-esteem, happiness and a greater sense of control over their lives. A family that owns its home is more likely to maintain and upgrade the property, take pride in the neighborhood and feel invested in the community.
Research also shows a host of other benefits among homeowners and their children, including lower teen pregnancy rates, better test scores and higher high school graduation rates. All of those factors lead to better health outcomes. That’s good not only for families, but the broader neighborhoods and communities that surround them as well.
My organization, Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, has worked for more than 35 years to promote, support and sustain home ownership and neighborhood revitalization throughout the Miami region. We offer pre-purchase education and foreclosure counseling, sell newly constructed and rehabilitated homes to mortgage-ready buyers, provide mortgage products and real-estate broker services and revitalize neighborhoods through community engagement.
We’re especially committed to extending the benefits of home ownership to financially struggling families who often face multiple barriers to economic opportunity, including the wealth-building and stability that owning a home can provide. By securing federal grants and leveraging the purchasing power of nonprofit housing organizations across South Florida, we’re working to rehabilitate and resell previously foreclosed properties to first-time buyers struggling to get into the housing market. That means stronger neighborhoods, significant tax revenues for the local economy and better opportunities for good health.
We have a lot of work to do to help everyone live long and healthy lives, not only in our city but across Florida. In fact, a 2015 study showed that if residents of all counties in Florida had the same opportunities for health, there would be 664,000 fewer households with severe housing problems — such as poor plumbing or inadequate kitchen facilities — in our state. The associated health benefits would be tremendous.
As the old saying goes, the American Dream is to own a home. That’s a good slogan; more important, it’s a ticket to better health.
Arden Shank is president and CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida.