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HLA House Project: Healthy Housing & Urban Pest Management

Aug. 11, 2021

Students in the Health Leadership Apprentice Program, divided into “house” teams, work alongside Community-Driven Initiatives to help Central Texas community members address health-related issues. This post is by the 2020-2021 members of the Yellow House: Alexandra Calve, Argha Bandyopadhyay, Beatrice Torres, Pritika Paramasivam, Supriya Anand and Daniel Kim.

We are excited to share our HLA House Project and are grateful that it was able to come to fruition as we navigated a difficult year full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Through this project, we gained unique perspectives from a specific community in Austin and learned how to effectively work remotely during a pandemic.

Our house’s common interests of homelessness, mental health, public health and social justice drew us to working with one of Dell Medical School’s community partners, BASTA, a nonprofit organization in Austin that empowers tenants through developing programs and resources that educate them about their rights. Through their efforts, they strive to improve tenants’ living situations to help them reach their full health potentials.

BASTA focuses on a variety of problems faced by tenants. Along with mobilization of organizations and education, they also handle issues such as repairs, rental assistance, pest control and evictions so that tenants can experience quality living. We decided to focus on pests and their negative long-term physical and mental health effects on tenants. Pest control is an ongoing issue for many tenants, who are often blamed for infestations in their units. We wanted to give tenants resources that would educate and empower them.

We began our project by researching the common pests in the Austin area: cockroaches, rats and mice, and bed bugs. We learned that these pests can cause adverse health effects such as asthma, skin conditions and illnesses. Additionally, these pests can affect mental health, since dealing with infestations causes stress and anxiety, especially if the tenant is unsure of how to solve the problem or receives little support from their landlord.

After we gained a basic understanding of the pests, we researched ways in which these pests could be eliminated from within the home. When tenants or homeowners experience a pest infestation, they commonly purchase a pesticide or call an exterminator. Unfortunately, these actions do not usually solve the problem long term. With this in mind, we focused on integrated pest management, or IPM, a natural way of removing pests that does not include harmful chemicals. IPM aims to remove everything a pest needs to survive, creating an uninhabitable place for pests to live.

It was important to incorporate tenants’ perspectives into our project, so in October we attended a meeting along with tenants rights group, TADA. We heard tenants’ first-hand experiences with pests in their homes and asked them what they would like to learn more about. One of the main issues was a reluctance by landlords to provide aid to combat pest problems. Additionally, we learned that landlords often blame tenants for pest infestations rather than structural failures or the integrity of buildings, which can be contributing factors. Tenants who bring their concerns to their landlords or the Austin Code Department are often told to “be cleaner,” placing the entire burden of responsibility on tenants’ shoulders. By hearing these perspectives, our project goal became to provide tenants with resources to help them identify when pest infestations may be caused by systemic (or a combination) of issues, rather than by individual actions.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our involvement was limited to virtual meetings. We had the pleasure of working with Nitakuwa Barrett, MSN, RN, and manager of the Department of Population Health’s Community-Driven Initiatives. Barrett served as a liaison between our team and BASTA. She supported us throughout our project's efforts, such as helping us connect with experts who reviewed our research and provided feedback, which later was helpful to developing the informational resources for tenants.

Through this project, we learned that household pests are an overlooked social determinant of health that can have a significant impact on tenants. Pest infestations and other tenant issues may also not be within tenants’ control — many times they’re due to systemic issues.

Despite the pandemic and limitations of virtual work, we maintained consistent communication with each other. While it was tough getting started, we came to recognize and appreciate each member’s experiences and strengths, which we then leveraged to complete the research and develop resources. Through the tenant meetings, we developed a closer connection with the community and gained a close awareness of tenants’ challenges. Our team also gained confidence through the review of our research by professionals, which allowed us to lead and share important information to most effectively support tenants.

For next steps, we envision this project being continued and expanded into a comprehensive guide that covers solutions, talking points and illustrations of a “healthy house,” and highlights other problems posing risks to tenant health.