Six health organizations, with the help of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, are working to address the many factors that makeup someone’s health and well-being.
Expanding affordable housing, with the support of health systems, is one way to approach the issue, said Eric Muschler, the director of housing and health equity at the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF). Its Housing and Health Equity fellows program includes CentraCare, Essentia Health, M Health Fairview, Allina Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota and Children’s Minnesota. These organizations are working with the GMHF to better address the root causes behind housing insecurity.
“We believe housing is health,” Muschler said. “There’s a consensus of research that says, ‘If you’re more stable in your housing, your health outcomes are better.’”
Health organizations with the means for redevelopment, like Essentia Health in Duluth, are wanting to build affordable housing that could improve health outcomes, said Tonya Loken, the community relations director for Essentia Health.
Muschler said improving housing will positively impact health care organizations because there are high costs associated with patients who frequently come into the emergency room.
“The impact on the stability of the individual and the lowering of the use of emergency rooms, increase in primary care, shorter hospital visits, all have that positive impact for health care’s bottom line,” Muschler said.
Loken said the cohort is encouraged to think of alternative ways to fund their projects, outside of grants.
“Instead of just thinking about the grants … they can think about the investments that they can make. They can make money back on the investments, and thus have both a financial and a programmatic return on the investment,” Muschler said.
The program began in March and will run through November. Through the process, the six teams of professionals from the health care field will meet and learn about financing and community development to become more familiar with how their organization can contribute to affordable housing efforts.
Essentia Health, for example, has considered reshaping an existing employee down payment assistance program to focus on areas around the hospital to support home ownership, Loken said.
The GMHF offers the health organizations knowledge in finding different forms of financing and doing the “things that the market fails to do,” said Robin Hacke, the founder and executive director of the Center for Community Investment (CCI) – which has coordinated similar efforts nationally.
“If you think of water running downhill with gravity at the assist, that’s the way the market works. When we’re talking about community investment, we’re pumping the water up the hill. It takes a lot more effort, and to have Community Development Financial Institutions, like GMHF involved, can help simplify things for the health systems,” she said.
Hacke is helping with the Minnesota fellows program, using her experience from past programs, such as one in Maryland that aimed to prevent gentrification and keep affordable housing along the 16-mile light rail transit line currently being developed.
“Over the last six and a half years, the center has run a number of national programs that work with health systems to help them invest upstream, particularly in affordable housing,” Hacke said. “One of the ways that we’ve done that is to help unlock resources from non-traditional community investment actors: health systems, whether they’re health plans or hospital systems are really important potential community investors because their goal of promoting community wellness is really well aligned with the social determinants of health.”
The Maryland case resulted in more direct investments into affordable housing, supporting nearly 2,000 units in the area, Hacke said. It was successful because of the financing efforts and the area’s policy around affordable housing, something she said Minnesota can leverage.
“Minnesota has many progressive affordable housing rules and funding sources that have just been put into place by the legislature,” she said. “There is a real opportunity now … to translate that into a whole bunch of action. It’s our hope that these teams, as they think about the geographies that they’re prioritizing, will be able to use and leverage those resources with their own investments in some cases with their land to create affordable housing all over Minnesota.”