Is Renting Bad for Your Health? How Renters Can Ensure Safe and Secure Housing

Approximately 111 million residents in the United States are renters — the highest number since 1965. 1

While more people turn to short-term housing for affordability and convenience, renters have to be vigilant about the state of their housing, which has direct links to health. Tenants can be exposed to carbon monoxide, lead, mold, indoor air pollution and poor water quality. Substandard rental housing might put tenants at risk, and renters typically have to rely on landlords for home improvements.

Bar chart showing the common housing problems for renters and homeowners.

In the chart above, the percentage of renters who face certain problems is compared side by side with that of homeowners.  Go to the tabular version of the chart for more information about housing problems for renters versus homeowners.

How Tenants Can Protect Themselves

Asthma and lead exposure are two leading dangers that highlight the need for healthy housing among renters.

“Asthma is the single most common chronic condition among children in the United States,” said Katie Horton, research professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. “Following evidence-based guidelines when caring for kids with asthma is critical. For those with particularly tough asthma to control, home visits are often needed to help reduce triggers like mold, dust and termites.”

While serious problems should be left to professionals, there are some things tenants can do on their own to improve their living conditions. HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes has issued the Eight Principles of a Healthy Home 2, which addresses problems related to asthma and lead exposure. The list provides safety standards and advises that residents should keep their homes:

  • Dry: Roofing, drainage and plumbing systems should not allow water to enter the home.
  • Clean: Dust and contaminants should be kept under control using air filters with ventilation systems to reduce pollen and particulate matter, and dust should be removed often with a damp cloth or mop.
  • Safe from hazards: Poisons should be stored out of children’s reach; rugs should be secure; toys or other items should not create tripping dangers; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be working and fire extinguishers should be accessible.
  • Well-ventilated: The whole house should receive a supply of fresh air, using windows and outdoor vents to reduce a concentration of contaminants. Bathrooms and kitchens should be ventilated with fans and windows.
  • Pest-free: Make sure cracks and openings around the home are sealed and food is stored in closed containers. Use the least-toxic pesticides such as boric acid powder.
  • Contaminant-free: In pre-1978 homes, check and remove any deteriorating paint that may cause lead-related hazards. Keep floors and window areas clean, and test your home for radon. Install a radon removal system if levels are detected above the EPA action-level.
  • Well-maintained: Inspect your home and take care of minor repairs and problems before they become large repairs and problems. 

  • Thermally controlled: Residents need to be safe from exposure to extreme cold and heat, so the home should maintain adequate temperatures.

Know Your Lease and Your Rights

When there is a problem, tenants should try the landlord first.

“You hope that landlords understand the need for safe and healthy housing,” Horton said, adding that “a renter should not wait if unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions exist. Renters should contact their landlords right away to address these problems.”

Some of the common barriers tenants face in achieving solutions, she noted, include landlord responsiveness, education among renters and a reluctance or even fear among tenants to complain.

While there has been an increase in the number of renters in recent years, policies to ensure safe and healthy housing have not always kept pace, according to Horton. Local housing enforcement agencies, city leaders and tenants’ rights organizations are places some renters can turn to for assistance, depending on their jurisdiction.

Identify Dangers in Your Home

Renters should be aware of dangers, such as rodent infestation or lead-based paint, and should bring specific items to their landlords’ attention or, subsequently, to their local housing agencies. Tenants should reach out to agencies and groups in their communities to organize efforts when there are multiple complaints. A resource on housing-related complaints advises renters to understand the lease, track all correspondence with the landlord, keep a record of any communication about problems related to the rental and retain proof of rent and deposits paid. 3

Turn to Advocacy

Location, affordability, neighborhood social cohesion and inventory are among the challenges, creating a demand for champions who support renters’ rights, according to Amanda Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing.

One of the developments in the area of renters’ advocacy is the expansion of Proactive Rental Inspection Programs. Rather than waiting until a problem occurs, the periodic inspections mean that there is preventive maintenance, which benefits all the stakeholders in rental housing.

“The solution is really proactive rental enforcement,” said Reddy. “One of the big ways that rental housing quality is addressed in most communities is through a complaint-driven inspection or code enforcement process. Proactive inspection programs aim to avert crisis situations.”

What to Do If Your Home Is Making You Sick

Use the following steps to proactively address any health concerns related to your rental property.

  • Learn the tenants’ rights in your state.
  • Contact the landlord to discuss your problem.
  • Contact local housing agencies and renters’ rights groups.
  • Maintain all records of communication with the landlord about problems as well as proof of rent and deposits paid.
  • Look into proactive rental enforcement and rental code enforcement.

With about 370 local programs around the country, medical-legal partnerships are bringing legal services and expertise directly into clinics to work on behalf of patients. Physicians, social workers and nurses are screening patients to determine when their housing issues are potentially impeding their health and then referring them directly to legal help.

The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership at the Milken Institute School of Public Health keeps the George Washington University front and center when it comes to healthy rental housing.

Related issues “run the gamut of substandard housing conditions,” said Kate Marple, communications director for the Center. Lawyers intervene in health-related cases dealing with mold, rodents and when things aren’t being kept up to code, according to Marple.

The Center’s work is just one of the school’s efforts.

“There’s such a close link between health and housing and other social determinants of health,” Professor Horton said. The Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University “increases that awareness. It’s in everything we do and teach and talk about: This greater recognition that health is not just physical health. So many things in someone’s life impact someone’s health, and from a public health perspective, you really have to acknowledge, recognize and appreciate all of those diverse social determinants of health.”

Want to Know More?

Reach out to your local housing authority for the most up-to-date information about renters’ rights and landlord responsibilities for safe housing.

Bar charts examining the rental conditions across the U.S.

The National Center for Healthy Housing examined rental conditions across the country. Go to the tabular data version of this bar chart to learn what renters are facing in these large metro areas.

1 “Quick Facts: Resident Demographics,” National Multifamily Housing Council. Accessed September 3, 2018.

2 “Healthy Homes (PDF, 2 MB),” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Accessed September 3, 2018.

3 “Housing-Related Complaints,” USA.Gov, May 18, 2018. Accessed September 3, 2018.

Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.