Home is Where Our Health Is: Policies to Improve the Health of Renters in Milwaukee and Beyond

February 2020

We partnered with Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee to research how the affordability, quality, and stability of housing affect the health of renters, and developed policy recommendations that will improve housing, health, and equity for renters in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin.


We all seek to live in a home that is free from hazards and structurally sound, to be able to choose when and why to move somewhere new, and to not have to choose between paying housing costs and buying groceries. HIP partnered with Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee to show how rental housing affordability, stability, and quality are connected to health, and to develop policy recommendations that will improve rental housing conditions in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin. We drew on evidence from focus groups with Milwaukee tenants, stakeholder interviews, local quantitative data, and the broad research base on housing and health.

Today’s rental housing conditions are shaped by current and historical policies and practices that have led to, and that maintain, racial and economic segregation and inequities. To name just one example, 16 out of 18 Milwaukee suburbs as well as many urban neighborhoods used racially restrictive covenants which restricted where African Americans could live and severely hampered their opportunities to build wealth through home ownership. Policy changes can improve housing outcomes, advance racial and economic equity, and cultivate healthier communities.

Our work resulted in several products:
In Milwaukee, affording rent is difficult without livable wages

Available affordable housing ensures that people can pay their housing costs while still having
enough money left over to cover basic needs like food, utilities, and health care. Recent research on Milwaukee’s rental housing shows that while many people struggle to afford their rent, these problems are often driven more by limited access to well-paid jobs rather than high housing costs.

Wisconsin’s minimum wage is equal to the federal minimum: $7.25 per hour. Based on federal housing affordability guidelines, a person would have to work 91 hours per week at that rate to afford a home at the median rent cost in Milwaukee County. Policy recommendations to address housing affordability reflect the need for multiple approaches: raising incomes, expanding the supply of affordable housing, and advancing fair housing and inclusion across the region.

Milwaukee’s housing stock is in poor condition

Quality housing provides a physically safe and healthy living environment. Poor quality housing has extensively documented effects on physical health, and can exacerbate respiratory illness, cause childhood lead poisoning, and lead to injury or even death.

The City of Milwaukee has some of the oldest rental housing stock in the state, and high rates of substandard housing. Substandard housing affects people of every race in Milwaukee, and people with moderate incomes as well as low incomes. Yet poor housing conditions are not evenly distributed by race: In the Milwaukee region, 15% of African American renter households are living in inadequate housing compared to 10% of White renter households. Improving housing quality requires a proactive approach to addressing quality, both through code enforcement generally and through a specific focus on lead safety.

Evictions are widespread and have long-term consequences

Housing stability means having a regular place to live, and having control over if and when you move. Having to move frequently, or being evicted, can throw people’s lives and health into turmoil, and is especially harmful to children’s well-being and educational outcomes.

About 5,500 households experienced eviction in the City of Milwaukee in 2018, and the city’s eviction rates are far higher than in surrounding counties. Policies to improve housing stability include mediation, legal representation for tenants, and training, along with programs specifically for people facing homelessness or returning to their communities from incarceration.

Read the Full Report