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BUILDing Towards a Culture of Healthy Housing in New Brunswick: a year in review and moving forward

The New Brunswick Healthy Housing Collaborative has reach the end of our second year of the initiative. To recap, the New Brunswick Healthy Housing Collaborative was created and focused on improving health outcomes by mitigating housing issues facing residents within the Esperanza and Unity Square neighborhoods; two neighborhoods with some of the greatest health and social disparities within the city. The Collaborative also looks to make system changes to our local health and social institutions, including government, to promote, sustain, and ensure healthy housing practices in New Brunswick.

Our second year focused on analyzing the data from the home assessments that were conducted of over 140 homes in the two target neighborhoods. The analysis uncovered prominent housing conditions that could affect residents’ and their families’ health. In particular, issues with mold and pest infestations stood out. This is alarming considering that over 20% of home assessment participants reported having someone in the home with asthma. The data analysis demonstrated that the underlining factor affecting home conditions was mainly related to landlords not completing necessary home repairs. For example, one home was without heat for a year! Although many of the residents felt they were being taken advantage of, many did not complain due to either not knowing that they had rights as tenant regardless of their immigration status and/or fear of retaliation from their landlord (i.e. threat of eviction or filing a complaint with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

This work could not have been possible without the deduction and efforts of our community health ambassadors (CHAs) who have become community leaders around health housing. Our CHAs are New Brunswick residents who have decided to do their part to better their community and who recognize the importance of promoting health and wellness. In addition to conducting community outreach and the home assessments, they helped mitigate any outstanding housing issues and addressed health concerns via over 200 referrals and connections to appropriate services.

More importantly, they educated and mobilized the community around tenant rights and as a result, we’ve seen residents taking a proactive stance in exercising their rights as tenants. A few tenants in particular stated that they stopped their landlords from raising the rent beyond the allowable limit dictated by our local rent control ordinance. While we saw another residents standing up and making formal complaints to their landlords regarding getting necessary home repairs completed. We also had some successes within city government. We engaged the city’s rental control office and established a relationship that has led to some positive  policy and system changes such as requiring landlords to show proof of the home inspection in order to register as rental units. We also had Milagros and Celmira (two of our CHAs) lead a community meeting with the Mayor and City’s Rent Control Board, respectively. These efforts resulted in the City agreeing to make rental unit information publicly accessible on the City’s website. Overall, the Collaborative’s efforts helped increase the level of communication and interaction between the New Brunswick Rent Control Office and residents to address resident housing concerns.

Through peer interventions, our Collaborative has cultivated community momentum around healthy housing. This is in major part due to the dedication of our CHAs which can be summed up by Celmira (one of our CHAs) who stated: “[I was] inspired in part by [my] difficult but common experience[s] as [a] tenant – with [a] landlord who was slow to make repairs. Not caring about the living conditions that his/her tenants were in, but yet willing to collect a check… this (work) wasn’t easy. It was hard but I did it because I had the drive and access to people like New Brunswick Tomorrow alongside the entire process.”

Celmira’s words speak to the essence of what makes our Collaborative’s efforts a success. One that has truly been community driven with the support and guidance of community organizations like New Brunswick Tomorrow, both Robert Wood Johnson University and Saint Peters University Hospitals and the Middlesex County Office of Health Services that have and will continue to work together towards achieving  necessary policy and system changes that support a community culture around healthy housing in New Brunswick.

About the Grantee

New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT)

New Brunswick Tomorrow's mission is to improve the quality of life for all New Brunswick residents; driving ideas, partnerships and initiatives that reinvigorate lives and move people forward. Within Community Health, a major focus area, we look to improve health outcomes by promoting health active lifestyles, preventing diseases, and increasing access to health services.