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An Atlanta health care provider takes on the city's housing crisis


Affordable homes are in short supply in many parts of this country because unstable housing is often linked to poor health. Some large health care providers are investing in renovating or building new places to live. The goal is to improve health outcomes in communities. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Peter Biello reports.


PETER BIELLO, BYLINE: On a sunny day in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood, a huge truck hauls dirt from a construction site. Kathryn Lawler is partially responsible for what's happening here. She's the CEO of Saint Joseph's Health System and Mercy Care, the safety net hospital around the corner.

KATHRYN LAWLER: This is the construction site of the future McAuley Station. It will be 170 units of affordable housing located right on McAuley Park.

BIELLO: Mercy Care has pledged to pay the rent on 10 of those apartments for people waiting for permanent affordable housing. There's no formal limit on how long tenants can stay, but Mercy Care expects an average stay of 90 days. Lawler says it's an effort to help people get healthy outside the hospital setting in their communities.

LAWLER: What makes people healthy starts first with the opportunities they have in their life and also with their ability to live in a safe, stable and affordable community.

BIELLO: She's describing a concept known as the social determinants of health. This is the idea that having access to healthy foods, a good education, clean air and affordable housing matter when it comes to overall health. Lawler says these apartments will help with that.

LAWLER: By doing this comprehensive approach to health, that's really where we chip away at long-term inequities that have manifested themselves in many communities but certainly in Atlanta, as well.

BIELLO: Mercy Care in Atlanta is not alone. In the last decade or so, several health care systems across the U.S. have made significant investments in affordable housing. Boston Medical Center has made no-interest loans to help developers create more than 1,300 units of affordable housing. Megan Sandel is Boston Medical's place-based investing lead. She says they've primarily served people who don't have stable housing.

MEGAN SANDEL: We have many patients that would keep coming back through the emergency department and hospital simply because they didn't have a place to take their insulin or to plug in their CPAP machine at night.

BIELLO: But with a stable place to live, she says those patients are less likely to use the ER for preventable ailments. Connecting these patients to affordable housing could even save money. UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh has contributed to loan funds that help developers complete affordable housing projects. UPMC Health Plan's Kevin Progar says they compared the cost of patients' ER visits before and after placing them in affordable homes.

KEVIN PROGAR: Usually, varied somewhere between basically 5,000 and $10,000 a member per year and for - kind of avoided costs that we think we might have spent otherwise.

BIELLO: While UPMC Health Plan, Boston Medical and others often step away from their housing projects once they're completed, Mercy Care in Atlanta plans to stay involved. It'll raise funds to pay the rent. Jeffrey Brenner, a former UnitedHealthcare executive, says for long-term success, they need to use these units strategically.

JEFFREY BRENNER: If they don't target the units to people who are coming in and out of the hospital all the time, then they're not going to have an incentive to keep doing this.

BIELLO: Back in Atlanta, from the kitchen window of his two-bedroom apartment, Zach Eidex has watched workers prepare the ground for McAuley Station. He says he's worried about his rent increasing and what more low-income housing will do to the neighborhood.

ZACH EIDEX: Because I spoke with someone who lived here 20 years ago, and it was low-income, and there was lots of crime. So I would be slightly worried that, you know, the tenants would be responsible.

BIELLO: Across the street, Brittany Briscoe walks her dog, a Chihuahua mix named Max. She's lived in this neighborhood for four years. She says she thinks McAuley Station can help.

BRITTANY BRISCOE: The only way that you can ever reach privilege is, like, you have to get out of poverty. So, yeah, it's going to create some whatever - transition woes. But, like, we are helping those people that are able to live there have access to privilege.

BIELLO: And that access, at least for some in this Atlanta neighborhood, will get a little bit easier in early 2024, when McAuley Station is scheduled to open.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Biello in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Biello
Peter began his public radio career in 2007 at WHQR-FM in Wilmington, North Carolina. He served as Morning Edition host and reporter, covering county government and Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. His work has won several Associated Press awards and has appeared on NPR's All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and PRI's This American Life. A graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington, Peter enjoys writing, cooking and traveling.