Using a Public Health Lens to Understand and Address the Foreclosure Crisis

This is the final installment in a three-part series on foreclosure and health.

Communities are taking on the foreclosure crisis

Focusing on the health implications of the foreclosure crisis can be overwhelming. However, communities and organizations across the country are fighting back, from boosting tenant protections, to using eminent domain to keep families in their homes, to filing a lawsuit against Morgan Stanley that alleges the company violated the Fair Housing Act by targeting low-income African-American neighborhoods in Detroit with sub-prime loans. Detroit communities are defending against evictions and fighting for jobs, pensions, and services. While many efforts are led by grassroots community organizations and sectors outside of public health, there have been successful partnerships between community-based organizations and public health agencies that have helped reshape the debate, reframe the issue, identify measurable indicators of impact, and bring in new sectors and allies that can help build a broader base for not just addressing the foreclosure crisis, but for building a fair and inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to be healthy.

How can public health be part of the solution?

In addition to research on foreclosure and health, public health organizations, such as local health departments, are becoming engaged in multiple ways, from targeting physical and mental health services to those going through foreclosure to engaging in policy change. In looking specifically at policy change, a public health lens can help:

1. Reframe the policy debate: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society Director john powell recently spoke at the Beyond Bankruptcy: Building Power and Resilience conference in Detroit. He used three questions from PolicyLink’s Founder and CEO, Angela Glover Blackwell as a framework for looking at Detroit’s bankruptcy: 1) Who decides? 2) Who pays? and 3) Who benefits?

Bringing a public health lens to these questions can help reframe the policy debate from a focus on political battles and short-term economic issues to looking at long-term health outcomes. A public health lens shows the economic and health costs of the foreclosure crisis are borne by low-income communities of color and the benefits are reaped by a small percentage of people who profited from the crisis, and who have also had undue influence over political decisions. Public health data and stories of how foreclosure affects health can help highlight the injustices of the current system that mean shorter, sicker lives for many.

2. Change the narrative: Professor powell also mentions that while we must address technical issues, such as municipal bankruptcy and foreclosure, we must also change the narrative. Many of the Beyond Bankruptcy conference speakers described how our country’s racialized past has led to the crises we experience today. powell described how our country’s deep and profound anxiety around issues related to race prevents us from finding the solutions we need to have a fair, inclusive, and healthy society. While this is not something public health can tackle alone, the central, underlying values of public health, such as interconnectedness, fairness, and social justice can be used to change the discourse to emphasize how investing in people, communities, and public structures is critical for our health and prosperity.

3. Connect to residents: Health departments are already connected to many residents through partnerships, services, and policy work around specific health issues. A growing number of health departments are expanding this work to also include addressing social factors that affect health, such as housing, and they are doing this in partnership with residents and grassroots organizations. Public health organizations can also support efforts to ensure that those most negatively affected are at the forefront of “who decides” and “who benefits” from policy decisions. This can also be a way to change the narrative—as community members drive efforts to address issues like the foreclosure crisis, they can also focus the discourse on community assets and resiliency, rather than solely focusing on challenges.

Why public health must become engaged in the foreclosure crisis

The Institute of Medicine defines public health “as what society does collectively to assure the conditions for people to be healthy.” While engaging in the foreclosure crisis will be challenging for the public health field, the reality is that the foreclosure crisis and municipal bankruptcy are conditions that gravely affect the health of our communities. A growing number of researchers and organizations are beginning to address foreclosure and municipal bankruptcy as public health issues. Communities and resident-driven community-based organizations are already taking a lead on changing these conditions—public health researchers and practitioners from around the country must join in if we are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy.

Here’s a list of housing, foreclosure, and food resources in Detroit. If you have other resources to share, please add them to the comments. Do you have ideas about how public health can help address the foreclosure crisis? Let us know in the comments.

Katherine Schaff, MPH, is a Doctor of Public Health candidate at University of California –  Berkeley and is studying how local health departments are engaging in and communicating about the foreclosure crisis. She can be reached at