Is Renting Bad for Your Health? How Renters Can Ensure Safe and Secure Housing

By George Washington University’s online Master of Public Health program           January 25, 2019

Approximately 111 million residents in the United States are renters — the highest number since 1965. 1  While more people turn to short-term housing for affordability and convenience, renters have to be vigilant about the state of their housing, which has direct links to health. Tenants can be exposed to carbon monoxide, lead, mold, indoor air pollution and poor water quality. Substandard rental housing might put tenants at risk, and renters typically have to rely on landlords for home improvements.  In the chart below, the percentage of renters who face certain problems is compared side by side with that of homeowners.

How Tenants Can Protect Themselves

Asthma and lead exposure are two leading dangers that highlight the need for healthy housing among renters.

“Asthma is the single most common chronic condition among children in the United States,” said Katie Horton, External link  research professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. “Following evidence-based guidelines when caring for kids with asthma is critical. For those with particularly tough asthma to control, home visits are often needed to help reduce triggers like mold, dust and termites.”

While serious problems should be left to professionals, there are some things tenants can do on their own to improve their living conditions. HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes has issued the Eight Principles of a Healthy Home 2, which addresses problems related to asthma and lead exposure. The list provides safety standards and advises that residents should keep their homes:

  • Dry: Roofing, drainage and plumbing systems should not allow water to enter the home.
  • Clean: Dust and contaminants should be kept under control using air filters with ventilation systems to reduce pollen and particulate matter, and dust should be removed often with a damp cloth or mop.
  • Safe from hazards: Poisons should be stored out of children’s reach; rugs should be secure; toys or other items should not create tripping dangers; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be working and fire extinguishers should be accessible.
  • Well-ventilated: The whole house should receive a supply of fresh air, using windows and outdoor vents to reduce a concentration of contaminants. Bathrooms and kitchens should be ventilated with fans and windows.
  • Pest-free: Make sure cracks and openings around the home are sealed and food is stored in closed containers. Use the least-toxic pesticides such as boric acid powder.
  • Contaminant-free: In pre-1978 homes, check and remove any deteriorating paint that may cause lead-related hazards. Keep floors and window areas clean, and test your home for radon. Install a radon removal system if levels are detected above the EPA action-level.
  • Well-maintained: Inspect your home and take care of minor repairs and problems before they become large repairs and problems.
  • Thermally controlled: Residents need to be safe from exposure to extreme cold and heat, so the home should maintain adequate temperatures.

Know Your Lease and Your Rights

When there is a problem, tenants should try the landlord first.

“You hope that landlords understand the need for safe and healthy housing,” Horton said, adding that “a renter should not wait if unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions exist. Renters should contact their landlords right away to address these problems.”

Some of the common barriers tenants face in achieving solutions, she noted, include landlord responsiveness, education among renters and a reluctance or even fear among tenants to complain.

While there has been an increase in the number of renters in recent years, policies to ensure safe and healthy housing have not always kept pace, according to Horton. Local housing enforcement agencies, city leaders and tenants’ rights organizations are places some renters can turn to for assistance, depending on their jurisdiction.

Identify Dangers in Your Home

Renters should be aware of dangers, such as rodent infestation or lead-based paint, and should bring specific items to their landlords’ attention or, subsequently, to their local housing agencies. Tenants should reach out to agencies and groups in their communities to organize efforts when there are multiple complaints. A resource on housing-related complaints advises renters to understand the lease, track all correspondence with the landlord, keep a record of any communication about problems related to the rental and retain proof of rent and deposits paid. 3

What to Do If Your Home Is Making You Sick

Use the following steps to proactively address any health concerns related to your rental property.

  • Learn the tenants’ rights in your state.
  • Contact the landlord to discuss your problem.
  • Contact local housing agencies and renters’ rights groups.
  • Maintain all records of communication with the landlord about problems as well as proof of rent and deposits paid.
  • Look into proactive rental enforcement and rental code enforcement.

Want to Know More?

Reach out to your local housing authority for the most up-to-date information about renters’ rights and landlord responsibilities for safe housing.

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