Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has seen unparalleled innovation, growth in productivity, and arguably the greatest collective standard of living in all of human history. But there have been significant costs associated with this growth, one of which has been a more sedentary lifestyle. 

Stephen Whyte
Stephen Brashear Stephen Whyte

Obesity rates have increased across all ages, in large part due to insufficient physical activity and poor nutrition. With one in three children and two-thirds of adults considered overweight or obese, the problem is a significant public health crisis. Obesity is the leading cause of preventable death, and the associated medical care costs are an estimated $147 billion per year.

Studies have shown that these health issues are of particular concern for lower-income populations, such as those that live in Vitus Group’s affordable housing properties. Children living in low-income neighborhoods are up to 60% more likely to be overweight than their middle- and higher-income counterparts. 

Lower-income populations face a wide range of obstacles as they strive to lead healthier lives, including fewer opportunities for physical activity, limited access to healthy foods, and tight time constraints. There are multiple factors that contribute to the obesity crisis, some of which stem from the housing environment. When housing developers and owners focus on the influence that home and neighborhoods have on health, they can play a direct role in addressing this problem. Simple intention and awareness can enable our industry to improve health outcomes among low-income housing residents with little or no added cost.

Reaching children, families, individuals, and seniors where they live, work, and play is critical. It can be especially challenging for our residents to fit health and wellness into everyday life, but by designing housing built to encourage physical activity and a healthier lifestyle, Vitus Group and other affordable housing developers have the unique opportunity to address the obesity crisis. Active design, which uses architecture and evidence-based design choices to make daily physical activity and healthy foods more accessible and inviting, can help create and transform buildings to promote more active lifestyles. 

Whether it’s designing visually appealing stairwells to encourage the climb, building outdoor spaces that support walking and biking, or offering on-site exercise and cooking classes, Vitus sees active design as an opportunity to not only impact the lives of affordable housing residents in its properties, but also to reduce resident turnover by creating more supportive and resource-rich communities.

Over the next several years, thanks to our commitment to Active Design Verified, a joint initiative of the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and the Center for Active Design (CfAD), Vitus will integrate active design strategies in an estimated 3,000 units of affordable housing for individuals, families, and seniors throughout the United States, impacting more than 5,000 people.

This movement is just beginning, and at Vitus Group we are proud to be among the leaders as one of the first national affordable housing developers to make active design a priority.

We have received much support and many ideas from PHA, CfAD, and the Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places initiative, but it has been up to us to create an active design strategy that works for the types of preservation development projects in which we specialize. The process of brainstorming and testing creative ideas and possibilities has been positive for us as a company, promoting collaboration between our development, operations and social impact groups. Joining Active Design Verified has allowed us to invest in the strategies that benefit our affordable housing communities with little to no change in the overall capital budgets.

Properties renovated with active design principles include such amenities as community gardens, indoor and outdoor activity spaces, enhanced stairwells, bicycle storage, drinking fountains, and improved lighting and pedestrian paths.

Beyond what we can build with cement and steel, we also provide on-site wellness programs that are free of charge to the residents and are uniquely tailored for each community. These services range from fresh produce distribution programs to nutrition education to exercise classes, all of which play a role in creating healthier communities.

In addition, thanks to our involvement with Active Design Verified, we have a solid foundation of support from PHA and CfAD to help us develop and implement these programs and amenities. Through these strategies we’re combining high-quality affordable housing with active design features to create communities that encourage healthy behaviors.

This initiative has caused us to think creatively, at every level of the company, about how to provide our residents with the support they need to improve their health. Health-care costs are burdening our society. We create the conditions of daily living for our residents, and that role is an opportunity to help reverse the current trends in obesity and preventable chronic disease.

Join us and the other Active Design Verified partners in this fight to build a healthier future by making the healthy choice the easy choice for children, families, individuals, and seniors across the nation. Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds should have access to choices that allow them to live a long and healthy life.  

Stephen Whyte is the founder and managing director of Vitus Group. He is a nationally recognized expert on affordable housing and a leader in the preservation and redevelopment of the nation’s existing affordable housing stock. Under his leadership, Vitus has developed and continues to own more than 8,000 affordable multifamily units across 17 states.