Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Renters Also Have Healthy Housing Concerns

Elizabeth la Jeunesse
Research Analyst
The Joint Center recently released a working paper highlighting American consumers’ concerns and awareness of “healthy housing” issues, which include indoor air quality, water quality and other indoor environmental concerns. One of the more compelling findings of the study was that renters expressed healthy housing concerns at a higher rate than homeowners. Indeed, 36 percent of renters we surveyed reported some level of healthy housing concerns or suspected risks, while only 24 percent of homeowners did. Indoor air quality issues were most prevalent—including dust, dampness and moisture, lack of sufficient ventilation, and other indoor-air related problems including air pollution from outdoors. Other major concerns included water quality, and basic safety issues such as pests, and concerns about the physical structure.

Notes: Sample size is 820.  Renter households were asked, “In the past few years, how concerned have you been about your current rental home negatively affecting your or another occupant’s health?  This may include but is not limited to concerns related to mold/moisture, indoor air quality, asthma, chemicals in the home, noise insulation problems, light issues or other “healthy housing” issues important to you.“
Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Renter Survey (Summer 2014), The Farnsworth Group

Renters’ high level of concern is not surprising. Results from the American Housing Survey (AHS) showed that as of 2011 renters scored as worse off than owners across nearly every measure of healthy-home risks and concerns. Renters were more likely to live in inadequate housing conditions, encounter mold, musty smells and second-hand smoke from other units, as well as report hazards (loose railings, broken steps, insufficient illumination for stairs) than homeowners.

Along with these indoor issues, health risks in these places can be compounded with higher outdoor air pollution. Results from the 2013 AHS further showed that renters were more likely to report living close to highways/railroads/airports (20 percent) compared to homeowners (9 percent). Another 7 percent of renters reported living near industrial areas, compared to only 3 percent of homeowners. The higher concentrations of outdoor air pollution in these areas can infiltrate the home when ventilation methods do not allow for adequate air filtration.

Another factor that may contribute to renters’ concerns is the condition of their units. The rental housing stock is older, with a median building age of 43 years, vs 38 years for owner-occupied homes. Many older rental structures were not designed to modern standards for indoor environmental health. For example, many older multifamily buildings lack any basic ventilation systems for cooking with gas-stoves. Renters also tend to live in closer proximity to each other, with over 60 percent of renters living in multifamily buildings (vs. 11 percent of homeowners). The associated wear and tear of higher turnover, and neighbors’ behavior such as smoking indoors, can impact renters’ quality of life.

Rental property owners’ maintenance and upkeep behaviors certainly also influence renters’ satisfaction with their living conditions. But while most state and municipal sanitary and housing codes govern most basic issues such as structural integrity and pests, they rarely incorporate newer research on indoor environmental quality concerns. These concerns include formaldehyde in building products, inadequate or non-existent ventilation for gas-stove cooking, second-hand smoke, and other off-gassing chemicals (e.g., VOCs) from indoor furnishings such as carpets and flooring.

The chart below provides a snapshot of renters’ specific indoor environmental concerns based on our survey results, beyond basic issues typically addressed by housing codes. As it shows, air quality and other indoor issues impacted renters living in both single- and multi-family homes. Dust and moisture concerns were most common. Renters also expressed awareness of chemical issues, including from the building itself but also from interior products/furnishings/carpeting. Among renters living in multifamily structures, noise issues and odors or smoke from neighboring units were also cited frequently.

Notes: N=239, including 80 renters living in single family detached homes and 159 renters living in multifamily or attached homes. Renter households that expressed some basic interest/concern over indoor environmental issues were asked, “Of the following healthy home issues, how would you rate your level of concern/interest over the past few years regarding your current rental home?“
Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Renter Survey, The Farnsworth Group.

While individual renters can take some minor steps to mitigate indoor environmental risks at home, most renters are limited by the fact that they do not own their units, and therefore have little incentive for—if not an outright prohibition from—making physical modifications to their home. Therefore integrated, long-lasting healthy housing solutions will need to come from multiple stakeholders, including not only property owners, managers and developers, but also building product manufacturers, as well as those who regulate the rental industry. All of these stakeholders should examine ways to incentivize, increase our understanding of, and promote healthier rental housing, including ways to make effective healthy housing strategies for renters more cost-effective.

The growing market for energy efficient housing may set a precedent for how healthy multifamily solutions might take hold. Recently numerous articles have highlighted the good business sense of pursuing energy efficiency. As a recent McGraw Hill study suggested, multifamily builders find that customers are willing to pay more for “green” units. While energy efficiency also saves on energy bills, healthy-home advancements in rental properties can potentially increase resident retention and satisfaction—both of which are of economic benefit to the rental industry.

With the ongoing, rapid development of research related to healthy housing, as well as the tendency of consumers to seek out information on this topic, we expect to see demand in this area to grow in the future. Indeed, as awareness of healthy housing research and risks grows, renters are likely to increase their demand for healthy housing attributes. Rental property owners who can get out in front of this trend may be better poised down the line to capitalize on the growing demand for health-conscious home environments.

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