Stay Home, Stay Healthy? That Depends on the Home.

People spend 87 percent of their time indoors. Before COVID-19, “indoors” meant office buildings, shopping malls, restaurants, gyms, etc., but the lockdown measures currently implemented in most countries are forcing us to spend our time in just a single place -- our own home. Indeed, the mantra of policymakers has become "Stay Home, Stay Healthy."

A home protects us against the outside climate, such as cold, heat, and pollution, but equally exposes us to indoor climate -- and this may affect our health. The big question: is staying home actually "staying healthy"? Well, that depends. In recent research, we find that the maintenance status of a home has a significant impact on both the objective and subjective health of individuals, with increased doctor visits and decreased mental health for those living in homes with deficient maintenance. Given that in the U.S., 36 percent of occupied housing units are in need of at least one repair, staying home isn't thus all that healthy for a large part of the population. The same holds for Europe: maintenance conditions are subpar for 10-15 percent of the Dutch and German building stock.

Some more about the study: we use a long-running household panel dataset, the German Socioeconomic Panel (GSOEP) to identify a causal link between housing conditions and health outcomes. Each participant is interviewed, individually, and asked to evaluate the condition of their dwelling, as well as to complete an extensive questionnaire on subjective health status and on their demand for healthcare, objectively measured by the number of visits to a doctor and the days of sick leave. In addition, the GSOEP dataset provides data on age, income, and lifestyle choices (e.g. smoking, drinking, BMI, etc.). The sample includes more than 300,000 respondent/year observations for the period between 1992 and 2014. The sample is equally divided between tenants and homeowners, a feature of the German housing market, which has a well-developed rental market that is used by people from all walks of life. For a simple interpretation of the main results, look no further than this graph:

Graph Healthy Homes

The graph shows the scores in mental health (dashed lines) and physical health (solid lines) for individuals living in homes that are in a good condition (light), and those living in homes that need a major renovation (dark). The scores control for sociodemographic characteristics of the respondents (i.e., income, gender, labor status, education, and household member per room). Each line shows the scores from young to old age. Young people are in good physical health, monotonically decreasing over time. The good news: mental health seems to improve with age, until about 70-75 years old. Importantly, home maintenance matters for health outcomes -- while the differences based on home maintenance quality are relatively small in early adult life, the differences become more pronounced in later years. As the respondents get older, the health gap associated with housing conditions grows!

In view of these findings, it is time to address the overdue maintenance of our housing stock, quickly. This is especially true for rental properties, but in the current stimulus packages, the government can also provide for a larger deduction for investments in owner-occupied homes -- good for the economy and good for our health!

Download the paper and summary version here.