Opinion: How to Improve Health? Give All Californians Housing

Campers and RVs parked close to each other on a public street in Silicon Valley in 2019, a symbol of the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Sundry Photography / iStock.

As a California high school student, I have become aware of one of the biggest health threats facing some of my peers: The lack of a stable home.

I believe access to housing is an individual right and a community need. The most fundamental health-related need is housing. A home is more than just a place to live. Lack of housing and high rents directly impact health, hygiene, safety and the ability to combat illnesses—especially during a pandemic.

And health inequities are worsened by a lack of housing. In California, the average price of a house costs $698,587– 23 percent more than the U.S. median. This high cost of living also limits Californians’ ability to pursue proactive medical care such as medical check-ups and nutritious food.

Before COVID, I was aware that many Californians, including some students at my school, lacked housing. My school, Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, conducts annual fundraisers for the Bill Wilson Center, which serves children, youth and young adults with programs focusing on housing and counseling. After COVID hit, the need to support homeless classmates became even greater. With school going online, those without housing often lacked Wifi, which made it difficult for homeless students to keep up with their education. Some peers at my school who experience homelessness suffered academically.

The high cost of housing where I live also affects students who have homes. When families are forced to pay high rents, they have less money to pay for academic opportunities for students such as Advanced Placement fees or extracurricular activities. I know some classmates who have dropped out of school because their families became homeless, or who moved to other states due to high rents.

With Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signing Senate Bills 9 and 10, I do have hope that California can begin to turn the tide on its housing problem, and help students facing housing insecurity like those at my school. Under these new laws, California will allow high-density housing on land that was previously designated for one unit and allow for denser housing near public transit corridors. Supporters of these bills contend single-family-home zoning is a relic of the past and was historically used to prevent people of color from living near predominantly white areas.

Looking forward, California is allowing denser housing close to job centers, transit and current urban areas, with up to ten units allowed per individual land parcel or apartment building. These are good first steps toward developing quality, affordable housing that will ultimately improve health.

Yes, California is stepping forward. But these steps are just the beginning. To protect the health and wellbeing of all generations, including my own, it’s important that lawmakers continue to work on innovative housing solutions to combat disparities in health equity for all Californians.

Dipti Venkatesh is a junior at Evergreen Valley High School, founder of HealthEquityPlus, a non-profit organization that works to reduce health inequities; a volunteer at Palo Alto’s VA Medical Center; a National Youth Ambassador for Tobacco-Free Kids; and a Congressional Award Silver Medalist.

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