Housing and Health: Remembering Paul Pholeros

By Rosanne Haggerty, March 2, 2016 - 1:40pm

As he walked me through the data that Healthabitat had collected on government-built and -owned homes over the years, a distressing possibility occurred to us both: what if it wasn’t just Aboriginal public housing, but all neglected public housing, that presented health risks to tenants?

Community Solutions President Rosanne Haggerty reflects below on the life of Paul Pholeros, an Australian public housing advocate who heavily influenced our own work in low-income communities. Pholeros died last month.

Paul Pholeros, one of the great housing innovators and champions of quality public housing and a great inspiration and friend to us at Community Solutions, died unexpectedly last month at only 62 years of age.  An Australian based in Sydney, Paul and his colleagues worked to prevent the poor quality of government-built or -operated housing from ruining the health of residents who had little power to demand improvement.   

Paul, an architect, was one of the founders of Healthabitat.  His co-founders were a doctor and anthropologist who, like Paul, were shocked by the condition of most of the government-built housing in Australia’s Aboriginal communities in the desert Outback. Early on, the three documented the connection between poor quality housing and the poor health of residents, and they continued to produce pioneering research and simple interventions to improve residents’ housing and health for many years. With a  motto of “no survey without service”, they would scrupulously document the conditions of homes and health issues of residents, yet would not leave a village without every home receiving critical repairs.

Paul and his colleagues developed processes for testing housing for health risks, trained residents to monitor conditions in their homes that could affect their health, and developed cost effective ways to repair housing, in part by training residents to make certain repairs themselves. They also developed new materials that would hold up to the harsh weather conditions and created an efficient system for rapidly improving the housing of entire villages at once.

You can learn more about Paul’s work and vision from his compelling 2013 TED talk.

The first time I heard Paul describe Healthabitat’s work and the linkage between poor quality housing and severe health problems, I imagined that he was describing a reality unique to the harsh conditions of the Australian Outback. I began quickly to realize I was wrong.

Paul shared Healthabitat’s findings on the causes of poor quality public housing. In analyzing thousands of government-built homes Healthabitat had documented design flaws, poor quality materials, poor construction, normal wear and tear and poor maintenance over many years as the cause of over 90% of the deficiencies in these homes, conditions that directly impacted residents’ health. Their research squarely contradicted the common notion that the problems of public housing were caused by irresponsible residents abusing their homes.

We met for coffee after his presentation. I was full of questions about his work, eager to learn more about Australia’s Aboriginal communities. Yet, as he walked me through the data that Healthabitat had collected on government-built and -owned homes over the years, a distressing possibility occurred to us both: what if it wasn’t just Aboriginal public housing, but all neglected public housing, that presented health risks to tenants?  I described to Paul the work we were just beginning to contemplate in Brownsville and we discussed the concentration of public housing there and the overall poor health of the community. Paul suspected that Healthabitat’s insights could be relevant to New York’s public housing. In 2010 Paul and a colleague were able to visit Brownsville and see for themselves. They assessed a range of government-owned or -assisted housing developments in the neighborhood, tested units for health risks, and met with residents about their housing to educate them about the most serious problems in their units from a health standpoint. Beyond the problems that threatened residents’ health, Paul noted environmental issues such as widespread water leaks in public housing buildings that were costly to the housing authority. Healthabitat’s approach to resident education, the environmental health and safety testing of government-owned housing, and the training of residents to make improvements remains a compelling strategy for public housing authorities, public health agencies and resident groups.

With his amazing wife, Sandra, a dentist who has set up clinics all over the world for those living in extreme poverty, Paul also developed a passion for Nepal, where he spent weeks each year building basic public health infrastructure in rural areas. Remarkably, Paul helped to finance Healthabitat’s work through his own architecture practice. His characteristic presentations on housing would always begin with a photograph of his own home, which he had designed himself, as he had a deep appreciation for the meaning of a person or family’s home and respected the special nature of that attachment.

Paul inspired colleagues, students and the residents of the communities he assisted with his humility, creativity, rigor and fearless commitment to improving government owned and assisted housing. Healthabitat continues the great work that he helped begin and lead.  We were fortunate to know and work with him.

 

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