Subsidized housing shields families from food insecurity and other health risks, according to research by the Children’s HealthWatch in Boston.

The study makes the case that food-assistance programs alone cannot address childhood hunger. Affordable housing is part of the solution.

The new report, Rx for Hunger: Affordable Housing, explains that for most families housing is the largest expenses. “Families in the lowest-income quintile spend an average of 40.5 percent of their income on housing versus 14.8 percent on food,” said the report, which was co-produced by Medical-Legal Partnership | Boston. “Securing a housing subsidy, which limits the percent of income paid in rent, frees up resources for other household necessities, including food.”

For example, a family of four on the Boston Housing Authority’s Sec. 8 waiting list has an average income of $21,300, putting them just below the federal poverty line. Typically, these families spend half or more of their income on rent. A housing voucher reduces their rent contribution to 30 percent and frees up about $4,260 annually for food and other needs, said the study.

Children’s HealthWatch analyzed data collected at its Boston research site between 1998 and 2008 and found that when children living in subsidized housing are compared with those on the wait list, those in subsidized housing are:

  • More likely to be food secure;
  • Less likely to be seriously underweight; and
  • More likely to be classified as “well” on a composite indicator of child health.

The organization also reports that the risk of children being undernourished is increasing. Between June 2007 and June 2009, it saw food insecurity rise from 14 percent to 26.5 percent among families interviewed at its research site.
While applauding the city of Boston and the commonwealth for its work to expand the affordable housing stock, the report makes several recommendations, including meeting the nutritional needs of families on the waiting lists for subsidized housing by making sure they are enrolled in various programs and expanding the priority categories for subsidized housing to include households that are doubled up with other families or moving frequently (the hidden homeless).

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