It’s well known that living in public housing in San Francisco can be dangerous, but now a new report suggests The City’s outdated public housing is also hazardous to children’s health.
Children living in the San Francisco Housing Authority’s dilapidated stock – some of which was built for temporary usage as far back as World War II – are 39 percent more likely to repeatedly visit hospital emergency rooms than children living in renovated public housing or private homes, according to a study published Monday in the December issue of Health Affairs.
“It’s a fairly large number,” said Dr. Nancy Adler, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UC San Francisco and one of the study’s five authors.
And since emergency room visits are between two and five times more costly than a visit to a physician during office hours, the frequent trips are “also a lot of unnecessary expense.”
Researchers looked at data from four years of emergency room visits, January 2007 through December 2011, by 5,711 children with public insurance.
Children from all of The City’s public housing were studied, including residents of dilapidated buildings like those in the Potrero Hill and Sunnydale projects and recently renovated units at Valencia Gardens and North Beach Place. The latter were part of a federal program called HOPE VI that rehabilitated the nation’s worst public housing projects.
Those children who lived in places like Valencia Gardens visited emergency rooms at roughly the same rate as children living in private housing, the study found.
“We were surprised at how well these [public housing] kids did,” Adler said.
Meanwhile, the poor health and repeat hospital visits could keep these children stuck in the cycle of poverty for their entire lives.
“If you’re sicker, if you have uncontrolled asthma, you’re more likely to miss school,” Adler said. “This is why investments in early childhood are so important.”
Researchers have not determined how many of the emergency room visits were due to “legitimate” medical emergencies or conditions that could have been dealt with by regular physician visits.
However, the fact that children living in poorly maintained public housing have more frequent, unrelated emergency room visits could represent higher levels of underlying stress and mental anxiety, Adler said.
The study did not examine the impact of traumatic, violent events to which some public housing residents are subjected, such as the brazen murder in June of a reformed gang member in front of as many as 60 kids at Herz Playground near Sunnydale.
The findings also corroborate anecdotal and limited data suggesting that mold and lead in crumbling public housing contribute to childhood asthma and lead poisoning.
Residents in public housing have for years complained of vermin, mold and lead hazards in their units.
In a five-year span, nine units at Sunnydale were inspected for lead contamination by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Lead violations were found at three of them, according to records, including one with an infant who had elevated levels of lead in her blood.
There were 758 units not inspected.
Much of The City’s 6,000 units of public housing are scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt into mixed-income communities using a combination of public and private money in a program called HOPE SF.
Rebuilds are already underway at Hunters View in Hunters Point. Other public housing like Sunnydale still has no funding or timetable for a rebuild.
The San Francisco Housing Authority was not available Friday to comment on the study.