This article is a part of our Housing and Health during COVID-19 series. Others in the series include: Affordability and Community Conditions.


There’s a reason the phrase “there’s no place like home” may conjure images and feelings of security and stability (and maybe even the scent of freshly baked cookies). Our homes are the places we go back to at the end of a long day. The places we play, grow, and make memories. And ultimately, we trust that our homes will provide shelter and safety when we need it. However, as we talked about in our last article on Housing and Health during COVID-19: Affordability, the U.S. has long faced a housing crisis defined by increasingly unaffordable and substandard housing.  


This article specifically examines the link between substandard housing conditions, health outcomes, and the outbreak of COVID-19. Looking at the ways that each of these issues compound one another, it is clearer than ever that building a world where everyone has a safe and healthy place to call home must be a universal priority.  


Staying-At-Home in Substandard Homes 

Just a few months ago, at the peak of US lockdowns, a staggering 94% of Americans were impacted by stay-at-home orders used to stem the outbreak of COVID-19.¹ This meant that 308 million people across the country were suddenly asked to spend more time at home than ever before.  


But what happens when someone doesn’t have a safe and healthy place to call home? And what happens when the place they’re sheltering in is also taking its own toll on their health?  


Unfortunately, millions of Americans live in housing that is substandard – that is, housing that poses one or more health and safety risk, including poor air quality, mold, lead, pests, heating and cooling issues, asbestos, inadequate space, and any other hazard that endangers the welfare of the occupants.  


Each year, these conditions threaten the health outcomes of millions of Americans with injuries and illnesses like lead poisoning, inflamed asthma, and falls.² And now, with COVID-19 thrown into the mix, a substandard housing situation can be at once both a necessary shelter and a health risk in itself.


A Snapshot of Substandard Housing 

>> A 2019 report by the National Center for Healthy Housing revealed that 35 million, or 40% of homes in US metropolitan areas had at least one health and safety hazard, a 5% increase from the previous survey on housing conditions in 2009.  


>> In Illinois, the National Center for Healthy Housing found that 67% of the state’s housing was built prior to 1978, which greatly increases the likelihood of health risks in the home. Of these homes, 59% have a prevalence of lead-based paint and 41% have a significant health hazard present.³


>> Additionally, over 41% of homes that were tested in Illinois were shown to have radon amounts that measured above the EPA recommended amount for taking action.³


>> And, based on statistics collected between 2012-2016, Illinois had the second highest number of deaths in any state due to carbon monoxide exposure in the home, with an average of 64 deaths per year.³



A Compounding Situation of Housing Conditions  

Americans living in substandard housing are now spending more time with the health risks present in their homes, in addition to confronting new health risks associated with COVID-19. 


Let’s take a look at some of the factors that stack up in this situation. Low-income households are much more likely to live in substandard conditions compared to middle- or high-income households.⁴ These low-income households are also in a higher risk category for COVID-19, as many may not have the opportunity to work from home, may need to use public transit, and may return home to crowded living situations.⁵


Additionally, living in substandard housing can be a health risk in itself, and many people suffer from conditions such as asthma as a result of their living spaces. For example, more than 80% of homes in the US have been reported to have detectable levels of dust mite allergen present, and 24% of homes have reported levels that are associated with asthma morbidity.⁶ So, for the 1 in 13 people in the US who already have asthma,⁷ the stay-at-home orders may mean an increased amount of time spent at home with environmental triggers. This is a stark reality, made worse by the fact that these home allergens are most highly concentrated in low-income housing,⁶ and that people with respiratory illnesses like asthma are also in a higher risk category for getting very sick from COVID-19.⁷


Whether it’s air quality, radon levels, pests, overcrowding, or another health risk present in substandard housing, the bottom line is that millions of households are now spending more time inside with these conditions as a result of COVID-19. In turn, many of the people living in substandard housing may already be in higher risk groups when it comes to COVID-19, meaning that their health outcomes may be even more severely effected by this pandemic.  


Substandard Housing Should Not Be the Standard  

For many of those living on the front lines of the current housing crisis, the outbreak of COVID-19 has amplified the need for safe, healthy, and affordable housing. That’s why the work of Habitat Chicago and other local Habitats across the world is so critical. Through affordable homeownership, Habitat for Humanity provides and promotes access to quality, clean, safe, and thoughtfully-designed homes. Every house we build, in Chicago and across the globe, gets us one step closer to a world where everyone has a decent place to live.  


Consider donating or volunteering with us to ensure that we can continue our work in Chicago. 





We’ve compiled a list of resources that may be helpful to those of us currently living in substandard housing, but for a more comprehensive list of housing-related service resources in the Chicago area, visit our directory here.  


Home Repair Assistance  

>> City of Chicago Small Accessible Repairs for Seniors (SARFS) Program 

>> H.O.M.E. Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly 

>> North West Housing Partnership – Home Accessibility Program  

>> Habitat Chicago Home Care Educational Workshops 


Affordable Financing for Home Improvement Projects

>> Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHS) 

>> North West Housing Partnership  


Heating and Cooling/Energy Efficiency Assistance 

>> Elevate Energy  

>> Chicago Bungalow Association  

>> CEDA 

>> ComEd 

>> People’s Gas 

>> Retrofit Chicago 


Lead Safety Programs 

>> Elevate Energy’s Water Safety Program  

>> North West Housing Partnership – Lead Hazard Prevention Program 

>> The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH)  


Legal Aid in Chicago

>> Know your rights as a tenant 

>> CARPLS – The free legal aid hotline of Cook County  

>> Lawyers Committee for Better Housing 

>> Information on the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance 




1. Business Insider

2. Center for American Progress

3. Illinois Healthy Homes Fact Sheet

4. Environmental Health Disparities in Housing

5. The Health Foundation

6. Environmental Health Disparities in Housing

7. CDC



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