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How Can We Connect Racial and Health Equity with Housing in News Coverage?

May 29, 2019 | Katherine Schaff | Originally published by PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group

Some Bay Area communities centuries away from meeting housing goals.

Even tech workers can’t afford to buy homes in San Francisco.

As Bay Area’s housing crisis continues, segregation grows.

If you live in the Bay Area, chances are, you’ve read a headline like one of these. And as options for affordable, quality housing become harder and harder to find across the country, similar headlines are popping up in more and more places. However, despite this groundswell of news, what’s often missing is coverage of what to do about it. Solutions are few and far between, making the housing crunch seem like an inevitable and intractable problem. When solutions do appear, they often leave out the voices, needs, and ideas of those hardest hit by the housing crisis.

But we have good news—public health practitioners and their partners can change this story. In our latest report, “Equity and Health in Housing Coverage: A Preliminary News Analysis from Northern California,” we take a look at how Bay Area housing justice and public health organizations are advancing both policy and media strategies to ensure that everyone has access to quality, affordable homes and what comes with them: better health.


Housing and racial and health equity

For many of us in public health and medicine, the relationship between housing and health is clear. We treat kids with asthma but send them back to a home with mold. A dad faces high blood pressure and fatigue from a two-hour commute because his family can’t afford a home closer to work, and his kids miss his help with homework and his bedtime stories. A new mom ends up having her “home visit” on the street because her landlord evicted her so he could raise the rent.

Research backs up these stories: It shows that housing is a critical social determinant of health and intersects with education, transportation, climate change, and many other issues. Housing policy is also a driver of racial inequities — the legacy of redlining and segregation undergird our modern-day racialized policies and unfair outcomes. How society situates people based on immigration status, disability status, income-level, gender, and sexuality influences access to quality, affordable homes as well, leaving housing, a key foundation for health, out of reach for many.

The Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII) has taken this research to the regional level and shown what this means for the Bay Area: “The recent Bay Area housing crisis poses significant threats to the health of the region’s residents and families,” notes a BARHII analysis of housing and health. “Homeless rates have jumped by at least 20-40% in some cities in recent years, and over a third of Bay Area families with young children pay more than they can afford for their housing. More than half of low-income Bay Area households live in neighborhoods at risk of or already experiencing displacement and gentrification pressures. Displacement disproportionately affects low-income households and people of color.”


Leveraging policy and media strategies to create a home for everyone

Creating a Bay Area where everyone can afford a quality home may seem out of reach, but Bay Area activists, public health practitioners, and some elected officials have been working to make it a reality.

The Bay Area housing crisis cuts across the region and is a bigger issue than any one jurisdiction can solve on its own, which makes BARHII, the coalition of 11 Bay Area local health departments, well-poised to bring both a regional and health equity lens to addressing housing in the Bay Area. In 2017, a diverse, multisector set of partners called The Committee to House the Bay Area, or CASA, came together to develop local, regional, and state policy and funding recommendations, called the CASA Compact. To push CASA to emphasize equity and health, BARHII facilitated an equity cabinet of public health, housing justice, and tenants’ rights organizations that was funded by the San Francisco Foundation.

This cabinet worked to insert equity and health into the public conversation on CASA and successfully influenced the CASA process to ensure that it included some of the priorities of renters, communities of color, and others most affected by the health impacts of the Bay Area’s housing instability. As with much policy work, keeping equity at the center is challenging, and while there is opportunity in advancing key parts of the Compact, there are also concerns about if and how the recommendations will advance equity. The opportunities for organizing—and for using media advocacy to advance housing policy that focuses on equity and health—are far from over. However, there has been a substantial amount of news coverage of CASA, which offers a chance to analyze this coverage and provide recommendations for public health practitioners in the Bay Area as well as those working on housing across the country.


Housing and health in the news: Findings and recommendations

As Berkeley Media Studies Group has been able to provide some communication support to BARHII and their partners, we’ve been especially interested in tracking and analyzing news coverage related to the housing crisis and CASA specifically. As part of our news analysis, we examined coverage to see if connections to racial and health equity were present, if solutions were visible, whose voices appeared the most in coverage, and how, if at all, news about the Bay Area housing crisis in general differed from coverage that discussed CASA.

3Ps in news about CASA vs. the housing crisis overall: Solutions, particularly protection and preservation strategies, were more present in news coverage of CASA.

We found that when public health departments and their partners make the equity and health aspects of housing a priority, those priorities appear more often in news coverage. As our report details, compared to coverage of the housing crisis, the CASA coverage had much more of a focus on equity-driven solutions championed by tenants’ rights organizations; these included a policy and communication strategy that focused on setting concrete goals and choosing policies to advance what CASA called the 3Ps: protecting people from displacement, preserving existing affordable housing, and producing new affordable housing. While there is often political pressure to drop protection and preservation strategies from plans to address the housing crisis, housing justice and public health organizations have pushed for a focus on all three Ps as being critical for equity and preventing displacement.

That CASA coverage of the 3Ps effectively highlighted equity is an important finding. Public health practitioners and news coverage often focus on the problem, without pointing the public and policymakers to solutions. Especially in housing, where the magnitude of the problem feels overwhelming and policy solutions are not well-known, news coverage that includes solutions, especially equity-focused ones, is a big accomplishment and gets these ideas into public debate.


RECOMMENDATION: Stay focused on clear, equitable policy goals.

At BMSG, we consistently stress the need to develop strong messages that include solutions. By focusing on getting CASA to include specific, measureable goals for each of the 3Ps as part of their overall strategy and communication strategy from the beginning, housing justice and public health organizations were able to shift news coverage. Public health practitioners working on any area of housing policy can start off strong by using these same tools.

The news analysis also showed that those working to ensure CASA included each of the 3Ps and a focus on equity were able to get the issue into many media channels, from small blogs to mainstream news. This aligned with the advocates’ overall strategy and helped them access their target audiences, as the mainstream news could reach elected leaders, and the blogs, which often went deeper into policy details, could reach groups more directly involved in housing.


RECOMMENDATION: Track—and reach out to—a range of reporters and bloggers who are covering housing.

Do any include a focus on equity? Health? Can members of your coalition start to develop relationships with them before you are ready for a big media push? Use both reactive and proactive strategies for focusing news coverage on housing and health. Meet with journalists to help them see the connections among equity, health, and housing. Follow journalists on social media and develop materials, like short handouts that include frequently asked questions, so they are ready to go when there is an opportunity to generate or respond to news coverage.

We saw in our analysis that news hooks matter, as coverage about CASA increased after it released its recommendations in December of 2018.


RECOMMENDATION: Create, anticipate, and prepare for key events, such as policy decisions.

However, even before key events, you can use the elements of newsworthiness to generate coverage. If there are lulls in the policy timeline and no major events happening, it may be easier to get an op-ed placed than to pitch a news story. For example, prior to the release of the CASA recommendations, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and former Alameda County Health Officer Muntu Davis published a high-profile op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that tied together housing and racial and health equity. The op-ed was pitched to coincide with a week of coverage about homelessness in the Bay Area. On opinion pages, advocates have more control over the message, and getting a strong op-ed published can, in some instances, influence future news coverage.

In the news we studied, elected officials and representatives from regional government bodies were the most quoted. Spokespeople from tenant nonprofits and grassroots organizations appeared much less often in the coverage, while public and mental health spokespeople were rarely quoted. We also found that when inequity or equity did appear, it was most often focused on income inequality, and explicit references to racial inequity or equity were relatively rare.


RECOMMENDATION: Cultivate elected officials who can champion housing policy that promotes equity and health.

In any housing policy process that includes elected officials, they likely will be one of the most quoted groups. While there are always political and strategy considerations, if local elected leaders can champion equity- and health-focused solutions, public health practitioners and their partners can work closely with them and their staff to ensure that racial and health equity are a key part of their messages.


RECOMMENDATION: Build the communication capacity and infrastructure to support housing justice and public health organizations so a broader range of voices appear in news coverage.

With training and other resources, advocates can align their strategies and messages, build a narrative around housing that keeps racial and health equity at the center, and bring the important voices of their constituents into the public conversation through the news. An added benefit of this approach is that the skills and infrastructure groups build while working on housing can then transfer to work on other social determinants of health, so the power and capacity grow at the community level, issue by issue.

Values are another key part of strong messages. Our analysis found that news coverage of those opposed to expanding affordable housing and protecting tenants often invoked values, including autonomy and protecting “small-town” interests. Those working to elevate racial justice and health equity should also be sure to include values-driven language in their housing messages.

RECOMMENDATION: Ensure that all members of a coalition, from elected officials to public health practitioners, have strong messages that include values.

Have the values-based messages ready-to-go for op-eds, letters to the editors, or interviews.

In reflecting on the findings from our news analysis, Will Dominie from BARHII notes that partnerships are critical in keeping equity and health at the forefront of media coverage.

“Even though it is imperative that public health departments speak out on this issue, when we work alone, it can be hard to get media outlets to pick up the story,” he said. “It can be politically challenging to go it alone. But if a local elected leader is already a champion, or if housing justice groups lift up the connection between housing and health, it can be easier for public health practitioners to then provide compelling evidence and stories about housing and health, as well as evidence for equity-focused solutions.”

These observations lead us to one more recommendation:

RECOMMENDATION: Build partnerships for your communication strategy and beyond to advance racial and health equity.

Public health can rarely go it alone, and strategies are always stronger when they include the wisdom and voices of partners, especially organizations that work with and are led by those most negatively impacted by current policies and their historical legacy. This is one reason we stress that communication is only one part of advancing racial and health equity work and always needs to be connected to broader strategies for advancing justice and health.

We know from our own efforts that communicating about housing as a social determinant of health is challenging: The causes and solutions are complex and full of jargon; the crisis—even the language of crisis—makes our current systems and outcomes seem inevitable and obscures the role and responsibility of local, regional, and state governments; it takes resources and work to get coverage that focuses on equity, health, and solutions; and many of the advocates working in this area have very full plates already. However, we’ve also seen that with practice, and with support for building organizational and communication capacity, we can help shape the debate, put equity and health at the forefront, and become a stronger part of the movement for housing and health equity.

For more information and recommendations for strengthening the narrative about housing, see our report: “Equity and Health in Housing Coverage.

Katherine Schaff is the Health Equity Coordinator at PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group.