Jan 30, 2020 Healthy Homes, Healthy People in New Brunswick

An Innovative Program Is Helping Local Tenants Improve Their Living Conditions

Educating the public about healthy homes Sophia's* rental home in New Brunswick was in serious disrepair, but her landlord refused to remedy the problems. “The windows were falling apart, the bathroom was in bad condition, and pieces of the ceiling were falling off,” says Sofia. “I waited for the landlord to fix these issues, but he didn’t.”

Instead, the landlord sent her a bill for a $4,200 water fee and other phony charges. When Sofia refused to pay the bill, the landlord tried to evict her, her husband and children.

Thankfully, a new program was available to help.

In 2018, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) partnered with Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Middlesex County Office of Health Services and New Brunswick Tomorrow to launch the New Brunswick Healthy Housing Collaborative, which aims to reduce risks and hazards in homes to improve residents’ health. The initiative is part of RWJBarnabas Health’s Social Impact and Community Investment practice.

“Housing is a social determinant of health,” says Mariam Merced, Director of Community Health Promotions at RWJUH. Unsafe, unsanitary living conditions can lead to a range of health problems, including asthma and allergies, lead poisoning, heat or cold exposure, injuries, carbon monoxide poisoning and fire hazards.

“Your living situation directly affects your health — whether it’s your mental or physical health,” says Ana Bonilla Martinez, Program Coordinator.

Investigating Health Risks in Homes

The New Brunswick Healthy Housing Collaborative’s community health ambassadors work to reduce risks and hazards in homes to improve residents’ health. The Healthy Housing initiative has four Spanish-speaking “community health ambassadors” who are members of the community and are trained to recognize health risks in homes. With the tenants’ permission, the ambassadors visit homes in pairs and assess the living situation. They investigate problems such as pests, water leaks, mold, lead exposure, dust, poor heating and tenant-landlord conflicts. After they’ve identified hazards, they make recommendations for improvements and connect residents with resources that can help them address the problems.

The program works with residents of two New Brunswick neighborhoods— Esperanza and Unity Square — which have some of the greatest health and social disparities in the city, says Merced.

Most of the residents are Spanish-speaking immigrants, often women with children. Many are renters who don’t know or understand their rights as tenants.

“Initially, we thought we were going to find a lot of issues around pests and mold, and we did find those,” says Merced. “But the most pressing issue was tenant-landlord conflict, with tenants not being able to fix their homes because they didn’t know that they could ask for things to be repaired. Some landlords take advantage of that.”

Others, however, have made repairs and improved the tenants’ living conditions quickly.

The program, which is in its second year, has already helped to improve housing conditions in 144 homes with more than 800 residents.

In Sofia’s case, the community health ambassadors explained that her rights as a tenant were being violated. They advised her to compile evidence, including photos and written communications, to use in case she had to go to court. Ultimately, the case was dismissed, and Sofia and her family decided to move to another home in New Brunswick.

In another case, the landlord made amends.

Carolina’s* home had chipping paint and mold in the bathroom. With the help of the community health ambassadors, she learned what steps she needed to take to resolve the situation.

“The ambassadors told me to write a letter to the landlord explaining the problems,” she says. “In the letter, I also mentioned that we didn’t have a fire extinguisher, and he got me one.”

The community health ambassadors also recommended that Carolina use cleaning products with fewer chemicals. Carolina is grateful for their guidance.

“I learned that the landlord has a responsibility to fix things that are wrong with the house,” she says. “I also learned how to advocate for my rights as a tenant.”

Empowering Tenants

Ambassadors raise awareness of the program at a broad range of community events.

To help tenants understand their rights, the Healthy Homes ambassadors host educational sessions at churches, daycares and other facilities. During the sessions, tenants learn to obtain a copy of their lease and receipts to document rent payments, take photos of hazards and put complaints in writing to their landlords.

“We help tenants get organized in case they need to go to court,” says Merced.

Bonilla Martinez knows from personal experience how important these services are to the community.

“I grew up in an immigrant family, and any sort of guidance you can get is helpful when it comes to housing because you don’t understand the language, your rights and the community resources that can help you have a healthy home.”

Merced says she’s proud of the program’s accomplishments.

“I think we’ve created momentum in the city around housing issues,” she says. “Many of the residents call us now and say, 'I’ve moved to a different place. Can you help me read my lease?'”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.