The ever-increasing disparity between discretionary income and rising housing costs doesn’t just hurt our wallets and our budgets. It also might have negative impacts on our health, according to a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Researchers examined global data from 27 nations to determine the population-level impact of exorbitant housing costs based on the known fact that unaffordable housing is associated with adverse health impacts on a more individual level.
The study focused on mortality rates from treatable deaths that could have been prevented with adequate healthcare and preventable deaths that would have been prevented through adequate public health policy. Suicides were also included as “deaths of despair” related to financial hardship. The team then compared those death rates to social spending per country in the form of unemployment benefits, pensions, healthcare spending, and housing policies like rent control and state-sponsored housing.
The researchers found that after the 2009 housing crisis until the end of the research period in 2019, the growing gap between income and housing costs was correlated to an increase in mortality rate in all three categories — treatable, preventable, and suicide. This effect was not found from the start of the research period in 2008 to before the 2009 housing crisis.
Countries that spent more on unemployment benefits and pensions saw a lower mortality rate for these types of deaths than countries that spent less. The same was true for countries that engaged in more widespread rent control practices.
The researchers speculate that unaffordable housing may impact health on a number of levels — by causing mental and emotional stress, but also by leading people to skimp on healthful foods to budget for rent, and by increasing behaviors that detract from overall health.
“We also demonstrated that social spending on old-age and unemployment benefits was significantly associated with lower mortality rates. This finding aligns with existing studies that social spending buffers households against economic hardship,” the research team wrote.
The team suggests that increased government spending and improved housing policy could offset some of the negative impacts of high housing costs.
“First, social housing for broad segments of the population appears to be associated with lower mortality risks…Second, rent controls intend to keep living costs affordable, particularly for lower income residents by limiting the amount that landlords can demand for leasing a home.” They continued, “These protective measures protect households against suffering from housing cost induced stressors.”
These findings are especially timely as the U.S. faces a new housing crisis. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have seen the costs of housing increase by leaps and bounds — rents have increased as much as 24% in some metro areas since 2020, and mortgages have also skyrocketed. The economic ramifications of this exploding cost of living are becoming more and more dire as inflation in areas as wide-ranging as energy costs to grocery store items continues to chip away at the budgets of Americans.
The researchers recognized limitations in their study, including being unable to control for policy changes over time. They also noted that the datasets consulted for the analysis did not account for differences in socioeconomic status.
Despite those limitations, the team asserted that “Housing cost burden can be related to population health… Unfortunately, since there was a growing pressure to cut back on social spending after the  economic crisis, an increasing number of households are [still] faced with [it].”