Home Is Where Our Health Is

From Health Elevations, the Quarterly Journal of The Colorado Health Foundation

Two blocks from the 25th and Welton light-rail stop in northeast Denver, nine affordable “healthy homes” will be built. The townhomes are a venture of Denver’s National Jewish Health, a leading respiratory hospital; Northeast Denver Housing Center, which provides sustainable, healthy housing opportunities for underserved people; and the Urban Land Conservancy of Metro Denver, which preserves and develops real estate for schools, low-income housing and nonprofit office space.

A residence, the most personal of “built environments,” can sometimes cause illness. Carpeting, carpet adhesive and cabinetry can release chemicals such as volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde, placing people who are sensitive to such substances at risk. Overly airtight construction increases exposure by keeping fresh air out. Dust mites, molds, mildews, lead paint and other substances can compound problems. Often homes in low-income areas are the worst offenders, contaminated with lead paint or asbestos. The new townhomes will be built lead-, allergen- and chemical-free.

Residents also will be offered help in improving their physical health and diets, says Gete Mekonnen, executive director of the Northeast Denver Housing Center. The center is looking for organizations that offer instruction in nutrition and physical activity. “We don’t want to reinvent a working wheel,” Mekonnen says.

The conservancy, with Enterprise Community Partners, the City and County of Denver and several other investors, are partners in the nation’s first Transit-Oriented Development Fund to build and preserve up to 1,200 affordable homes in Denver’s transit corridors, ensuring that low-income people are not locked out of conveniently located housing. Building homes in such corridors also helps get people out of cars and walking to transit – and improves air quality by reducing driving-related emissions, says Aaron Miripol, president and CEO of the conservancy.

“We recognize our mission is not just about buying real estate. It’s about the people who live and work there,” Miripol says of the conservancy’s work.

Founded in 2003, the conservancy considers broad community needs, including affordable housing and access to recreation, full-service grocery stores, libraries and other amenities in the properties it acquires and redevelops. One project, the former Holly Square Shopping Center in Park Hill, adjoins a recreation center, a post office and a library. Developers also hope to attract a small grocer. At another project in Festival Plaza on West Colfax, a Mi Pueblo grocery is going in next to a mixed-use site the conservancy purchased for affordable housing and the new West Side library.

“Built space and health tie into our real estate mission and are very connected to all our projects,” Miripol says.