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UB experts highlight crucial housing-health link at Pan-American webinar

Collage of photos illustrating the housing and health risk connection.


Published June 6, 2024

Lina Mu.
“I have enjoyed working with colleagues from PAHO, WHO and other collaborating centers in Pan-America … We felt UB’s expertise was well recognized and being utilized to contribute to regional and global health. ”
Lina Mu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, and co-director
PAHO/WHO Collaborating Center on Health in Housing

The innovative collaboration between UB’s Center on Health in Housing and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has been a source of productive research and action for years. But, UB took center stage recently during a PAHO-sponsored webinar, streamed across the Americas.

The webinar, “Housing and Health: Implications for Health Equity,” featured center faculty member Elizabeth Bowen, associate professor in the School of Social Work, and Meghan Holtan, a PhD candidate in urban and regional planning. The two highlighted challenges around housing and health in the Americas region from PAHO’s perspective, offering a look at the concept of housing as a key social determinant and its direct and fundamental relationship with health equity.

Holtan detailed five factors in the relationship between housing security and health: the physical condition of housing, residential stability, housing affordability, location and the surrounding environment, and the opportunities for care and social connections that housing often provides.

Bowen advocated housing as a human right and cited a 2022 study indicating that only 44% of 189 United Nations member countries had the constitutional right to housing in 2020. Health equity, she concluded, will never be possible without safe, stable and affordable housing, so tackling housing inequities is essential to making health equity a reality.

Other speakers during the webinar represented a range of regional perspectives from Guatemala, Argentina and other countries in the Americas, as well as from PAHO.

“One thing that stands out to me from the webinar,” said Bowen, “was that … some presenters presented in English and some presented in Spanish, while interpreters offered live translations via Zoom into the audience member’s first language. This was my first time presenting this way, and it made a really positive impression. It provided a seamless way of being able to interact with the other speakers and audience members across languages and cultures.”

Holtan seconded Bowen's comment about working with and learning from colleagues across the Americas. “One thing that I appreciated about one of the other presentations from the webinar was the open acknowledgement of the political drivers of social determinants of health, such as housing. The policy frameworks in the U.S. tend to focus more on the inequities, rather than the drivers of those inequities.” 

Long-term partnership

PAHO is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American System and WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas, working with countries throughout the region to improve and protect people’s health. With 35 member states and four associate members, it “sets regional health priorities and mobilizes action to address health problems that respect no borders and that, in many cases, jeopardize the sustainability of health systems.”

UB’s Center on Health in Housing is a collaboration between the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the School of Architecture and Planning, administered by the Office of Global Health Initiatives.

In 1988, the center became a PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on Healthy Settings, and the cross-border work began.

Via the collaborating center, faculty from across UB have shared with PAHO — and continue to share —their expertise on accessible housing, environmental exposures, food systems and healthy neighborhoods. They also contribute to WHO initiatives, such as the 2018 WHO Housing and Health Guidelines, which identified housing-related health concerns worldwide and recommended changes for housing policies at multiple levels.

“I have enjoyed working with colleagues from PAHO, WHO and other collaborating centers in Pan-America. Some of our UB members were involved in developing housing-related guidelines and providing technical reports,” said Lina Mu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, who serves as co-director of the collaborating center with Frimpong Boamah, associate professor of urban and regional planning. “We felt UB’s expertise was well recognized and being utilized to contribute to regional and global health.”

Added Bowen: “What has been exciting for me about working with PAHO is the chance to connect with colleagues in other parts of the Americas who are doing work related to health equity and housing.

“It’s fascinating to learn about the housing and health practice and policy landscape in different places, and I think there’s a lot we can learn to inform the research and practice that we do in the United States.”