The shortage of affordable housing is a crisis affecting many American communities. In 2021 every major U.S. metropolitan area suffered from a lack of affordable housing. The global pandemic has only made these shortages worse. Racial disparities also persist: Black, Latino, Native American and Asian renters are more likely to be extremely low-income.

The affordable housing crisis is also a public health issue. People struggling with homelessness are more likely to have chronic mental and physical health conditions, and the lack of stable or affordable housing can erect additional barriers to accessing health care for already struggling populations.

Inclusionary zoning programs can not only help boost the supply of safe, affordable housing, they could also reduce the risk of heart disease.

They also often tend to live in neighborhoods that are “food deserts” — areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, a situation that contributes to diabetes and heart problems. Using data from the 500 Cities Project, as well as publicly available zoning and demographic information, researchers from George Washington University looked at the overlap between inclusionary housing policies and heart disease outcomes in metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.

Inclusionary policies include devices like tax incentives for developers who put aside a share of their new housing units for low to middle-income renters.

Regions with such inclusionary policies and programs had rates of heart disease which were significantly reduced compared to communities without them, researchers found. Members of communities with inclusionary zoning programs were also less likely to suffer from high blood pressure or cholesterol, or to be on blood pressure medication.

“Stable, affordable housing in healthy communities can reduce stress and increase access to fresh produce, parks, jobs, safe streets and other amenities that help people stay healthy,” Gregory Squires, a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at George Washington University, said in a statement. It is this connection, the researchers suspect, which can go on to affect the heart health of individuals in the community.

Over 800 cities and municipalities already implement some type of inclusionary zoning. Researchers hope that this new data will encourage more urban planners and city officials to consider adopting similar laws. “Many cities around the country are facing a severe shortage of affordable housing,” Antwan Jones, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at GWU, said in a statement. “Our study suggests that inclusionary zoning programs can help not just boost the supply of safe, affordable housing, but may also reduce the risk of heart disease.”

More information about this study is available in the journal Circulation.