Note – this column first appeared in the Vail Daily as part of Valley’s Voices, a monthly column by Elyse Howard.
Take a moment to look around — it’s the season of hope. Autumn brings cooler weather and with it snowy daydreams. Anticipation and excitement come with the start of the school year. And at Habitat Vail Valley, our homeownership application process is open.
Families who are eager, hopeful and committed to building a better life meet with our Family Services team and drop off completed applications — their dreams of owning a home lighting up their eyes.
Every application cycle is unique; equal parts exciting and heartbreaking. For every home we build, there are nine applicants who don’t get selected. And while we celebrate the 100 families who are homeowners, our hearts go out to those who we can’t help.
For the past 25 years, we’ve seen the need increase for affordable, decent homes. Right now the need feels different — it’s intense and multi-layered. There are fewer rental options and more overcrowding.
Housing crisis at home
Headlines declare the worldwide housing crisis. But the crisis hits close to home from the short age of homes to overcrowding and unsafe conditions, which impact the behavioral health of everyone in the family. For the first time, as part of our interview process, we’ve asked families to share their physical and mental health struggles related to housing.
We’ve seen fathers who weep because they feel they are failing their families. Mothers who work two jobs to keep a dilapidated roof over their heads. Children who live where there is little opportunity to socialize safely with their peers. The entire family is stressed, but it may affect young children the most.
According to an Urban Institute Initiative, “a team of child development researchers found that children from low-income households living in concentrated poverty were more developmentally harmed by poor housing quality than by housing instability, unaffordability or other housing factors.”
We visit every family who applies for a Habitat home. We’ve seen windows that won’t fully close, homes without a heat source, leaking roofs, holes in the floor, five or more people living in a single room. To say this has a negative impact is an understatement. Children who live in these conditions have increased emotional and behavioral problems. By adolescence, poor-quality housing was associated with lower reading and math scores, according to Housing Matters.
The mental health of families who live in a constant state of anxiety due to housing instability and housing deficiencies is harrowing. Recently, we have noticed that families are more open about their behavioral and physical health struggles. Families share they are worried their rental may be sold or they are living in an overcrowded house. Housing instability and unsafe homes become a mental hazard instead of the home being a safe haven.
Another study, which tracked children in rural areas beginning at age 9, found after 15 years that poor housing conditions — including physical quality, home hazards and crowding — were associated with worse psychological health and feelings of helplessness in the short term and over time. Children’s poor mental health often shows itself through behavior issues.
Thankfully, with the work Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has undertaken, the mental health stigma is decreasing. Because of this work, families are sharing how their housing situation impacts their stress level. As a community we are working to alleviate the stress and burden. But there is much work still to be done.
We’ve partnered with EVBH for our Building Futures program, where we help put families in touch with services in the area. We’re developing pathways to ensure children and adults know where to turn for help — and that they know it’s okay to ask for help.
We encourage families to reach out to us, to apply to become a Habitat homeowner. We work with all families, guiding them through the application process. Those families who weren’t previously selected are encouraged to apply again. Our goal, as always, is to guide all families on their journey toward housing stability.
We continue to advocate for families of all income levels to afford decent housing and help families secure a successful future. We rely on our partnerships for innovative solutions that will help make houses into homes where families can hope, dream and thrive together. Apply at HabitatVailValley.org/homeownership/selection-criteria to become a Habitat homeowner.
Elyse Howard is the director of development at Habitat Vail Valley — the only organization that builds permanently affordable homes in Eagle County. Recently, Habitat dedicated 12 homes at Grace Avenue in Gypsum, is building eight homes at Stratton Flats and is currently accepting applications for the next round of homes to be built in Eagle.