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Broken Windows: The Shattering Impact of Substandard Housing

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Millions of people around the world struggle to obtain safe, decent, affordable housing. Studies show that living in substandard conditions can have far-reaching effects on health and quality of life.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow once proposed that the need for shelter, safety and health were among the most powerful motivators of human behavior.

Sadly, for people living in substandard housing, these needs often go unmet, causing a cascade of negative outcomes that can affect families for generations.

What is substandard housing?

While there’s no single definition for it, several factors tend to indicate housing inadequacy:

  • Insufficient protection from the elements (e.g., leaky roofs or uninsulated floors).
  • Lack of basic necessities like water and heat.
  • Structural issues, including crumbling walls or inadequate ceiling supports.
  • Overcrowding or dense settlement.
  • Poor ventilation and generally low air quality.
  • Unsafe or nonexistent electrical service.

Each of these can be damaging on its own. But combine several of them in the same dwelling, and life can quickly become overwhelming.

Substandard housing by the numbers

A staggering number of people live in inadequate housing.

According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 7.72 million American households had "worst-case housing needs" (defined as serious systems inadequacy such as incomplete plumbing or electricity, insufficient or broken heating systems and the like) in 2013.

That figure included 2.8 million families with children and 1.5 million elderly households.

And substandard housing isn't unique to the United States. The United Nations' UN-Habitat program reports that nearly 863 million people in the developing world live in urban slums, accounting for more than a quarter of the world's urban population.

By some estimates, the world slum population will swell to almost 1 billion by 2020.

Health & housing

Substandard housing is far more than a community development issue. It also has a significant impact on quality of life:

  • Emotional/Psychological: According to a multiyear Boston College study, children raised in substandard housing experience greater emotional and behavioral symptoms of aggression, dishonesty, anxiety and depression than ones who don't.
  • Physical: Individuals who live in substandard housing experience a range of physical threats, from polluted air and inadequate plumbing to lead exposure and low-quality food options. As a result, their physical health — and even their mortality — can be compromised.
  • Socioeconomic: When children live in substandard housing, their school performance suffers. And that sets up a cycle of missed educational opportunities with potentially lifelong implications for future income, employment and home ownership.

Building hope

Decent housing doesn't have to be an elusive dream. People across the globe are waging a multipronged battle against substandard housing.

On the political front, organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition work to shape public policy and educate lawmakers about the pressing need for affordable and safe homes.

Other programs such as Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity take a more hands-on approach. Through Thrivent Builds, volunteers and homeowners build quality homes and make vital repairs to existing houses. To date, more than 700,000 volunteers have built or repaired thousands of homes around the world, with plans to build more in the coming year.

A secure, decent home is vital to individual, community and global economic health. While many individuals are working to address the issue of substandard housing, the fight is far from over.