Starting next month, Iowa City will begin looking at affordable housing through a new lens: health care.

Selected as one of 50 cities nationwide by the Reinvestment Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Iowa City has convened a five-member team as part of the Invest Health program. The program is aimed at helping leaders from mid-sized cities improve the health of low-income communities.

The team includes representatives from the city, University of Iowa and the Housing Fellowship. Neighborhood Services Coordinator Tracy Hightshoe, a member of the local team, said the group received a $60,000 planning grant through the program and will develop a plan focused on reducing disparities in asthma and depression and improving behavioral health through the provision of affordable housing.

“I’ve been working on affordable housing for about the last 15 years, and this is the first time we’re going to be including the health care sector,” Hightshoe said. “It’s just a new opportunity for us to collaborate and see how we can help each other.”

The grant will be used in part to cover the costs of a June 7 trip to Philadelphia for the group’s first national meeting. Hightshoe said through December 2017, the group will attend national and regional meetings to speak with experts and gather and share ideas.

“We’ll have the opportunity to learn and see what are those innovative ideas and strategies that are happening across our nation and try to figure out how to bring them back to Iowa City,” said group member Vickie Miene, deputy director of the UI College of Public Health.

By mid-July, the group will submit a final budget to be used to advance a final action plan.

Other members of the team are Iowa City Council member Pauline Taylor; Kathryn Dorsey, program manager in the UI Carver College of Medicine; and Maryann Dennis, executive director of the Housing Fellowship.

Poverty as a stressor can be detrimental to an individual’s health, Miene said, and in some cases can impede access to health care.

“Our focus is, specifically at the college of public health, to come at this with a public health lens. We’re looking at the things that influence access to health care and, in public health, at prevention of disease and injury, and poverty really does have an impact on those things,” Miene said.

Hightshoe said several ideas and avenues will be explored over the next year and a half. That could include reviewing financial incentives for affordable housing projects, developing peer support programs and expanding existing efforts like the Frequent User Service Enhancement project, which reduces public costs by stabilizing the chronically homeless.

“Our hope is that, at the end of this process, we have an action plan that we look for resources to help implement it,” Hightshoe said. “We’re really hoping at that point we can apply for additional money through the Robert Wood Foundation to implement whatever strategy we identify. We’ll look for any source that will help us accomplish whatever we come up with during this process.”

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by Andy Davis