Why is affordable housing a health issue?

Jim Dunn’s research takes him to places where the fabric of society has become frayed and ragged, and where housing options are often unsafe, unhealthy or even non-existent.

Dunn, an urban geographer at McMaster University, studies how a home can do more than protect its occupants from the elements – it also contributes to a surprising range of physical and mental health benefits.

“Improve housing in a beaten-down area, and you may well improve income levels, life expectancy, education scores, civic pride, property values, and many other factors that lead to a better life,” Dunn says.

Dunn often finds himself face-to-face with shocking inequities that highlight just how disadvantaged residents in some poorer neighbourhoods really are. He tries to help reverse that divide.

The City of Hamilton, for instance, has invested $2M in neighbourhoods with poor health, employment and educational outcomes. Dunn leads a project that tracks how this investment changing the health and well-being of more than 2,000 residents in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas.

He also leads studies of other municipal projects aimed at redressing affordable housing issues, including rent-assistance programs, as well as the largest affordable housing experiment in Canada’s history: the replacement of Toronto’s multi-tower Regent Park area with a new 69-acre, mixed-income neighbourhood.

In 2012, Dunn plans to hit the streets with arguably the smartest smart car on the road. His tiny vehicle will come loaded with roof-mounted digital cameras, wireless tablet computers, and computer-assisted telephone-interviewing pods. This mobile research lab will give him a high-definition, 360-degree audiovisual cityscapes views, that can be integrated with door-to-door and telephone interviews.

Dunn’s smart squad will gain high-quality data about both citizens and neighbourhoods, provide a new level of sophistication in tracking how cityscape improvement affects health and social well-being.

**Major funders for this project include Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Research Fund, Public Health Agency of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the MacArthur Foundation, the Population Health Improvement Network and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

James Dunn

James Dunn

McMaster University

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