Unequal Housing Conditions And Code Enforcement Contribute To Asthma Disparities In Boston, Massachusetts

Evan Lemire, Elizabeth A. Samuels, Wenyi Wang, and Adam Haber

Housing quality is a primary determinant of asthma disparities by race and social class in the US. We sought to assess how housing code enforcement systems in Boston, Massachusetts, address tenants’ reports of asthma triggers. After adjustment for income and other neighborhood characteristics, racial demographics were significantly associated with asthma trigger incidence. For each 10 percent decrease in neighborhood proportion of White residents, trigger incidence increased by 3.14 reports per thousand residents. These disparities persisted during the study period (from 2011 through 2021), and for mold, which is an established asthma trigger, regressions showed that racial disparities are widening. The municipal response also demonstrated disparities: In neighborhoods with the fewest White residents compared to neighborhoods with the most White residents, adjusted models showed a 17 percent (3.51 days) slower median time until cases (tenant requests for inspections to the Inspectional Services Department) were closed, a 14 percent higher probability of being flagged as overdue, and a 54.4 percent lower probability of a repair. We found evidence that in Boston, despite several healthy housing initiatives, current regulatory systems are insufficient to address disparities in access to healthy housing. To reduce disparities in asthma burden, stronger inspectional standards and further enforcement policies to increase landlords’ accountability and support tenants’ rights to have repairs made are essential.