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Abandoned homes affect your health. But here's what can help.

Bill Hickey in his garden
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Brightmoor resident Bill Hickey started to feel at home in his neighborhood when neighbors came to help him on his garden.

When you’re in your house, what do you see when you look out your front window? Maybe a big maple tree, a mailbox, your neighbor’s house across the street and the house next to them.

Cindy Dorman wishes that's what she saw when she looked out her front window. But instead she sees a whole lot of blight. "Twenty-one abandoned houses" within a one-block radius of her house, to be exact.


Dorman lives in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood, one of the most blighted areas in the city. She grew up in Brightmoor and says, back in the 1960s, it was "a clean, 'Leave it to Beaver'-type neighborhood [where] the houses were well-maintained, everybody knew everybody." But then white flight hit, and most of her neighbors left for the suburbs. What was left of the neighborhood was pretty much decimated by the crack cocaine epidemic that hit Brightmoor a decade or so later.


Now, things are getting better in Brightmoor, but it's a slow process. The latest data show more than half of the houses there are abandoned.


When Bill Hickey moved in seven years ago with his wife, Billie, he had second thoughts about living there. "When I first came to the neighborhood and saw a lot of the burned-out houses and open and vacant homes, I felt very much afraid," says Hickey. "I felt like this was not the place for me."


Turns out there was something to that gut feeling he had.


Allison Aiello is an epidemiologist, and she says there are a number of studies that show how abandoned buildings and vacant lots can harm your health. She says people can experience "loss of community control over a neighborhood, fear of crime and financial strain."


Aiello herself has done research in this area. She's currently a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but before that she was at the University of Michigan where she helped lead the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study. She and her team wanted to know how neighborhoods with high rates of abandonment affect your health.


They surveyed 1,547 residents from 54 Detroit neighborhoods from 2008 - 2013, and drew blood samples from nearly 300 of those residents during that time. They used the blood samples to test for a number of different biomarkers, but for the purposes of our story, let's focus on one: the thymus. It's the organ responsible for creating new T cells in the body, which help fight off infection. Aiello calls it "a good barometer of the integrity of your immune system."


What she found was that "for every 10 percent increase in the prevalence of abandoned homes, there was a decrease in thymic function that was basically equal to having a thymus that was one year older than an individual with 10 percent fewer abandoned homes in their neighborhood."


In other words, living in a neighborhood like Brightmoor, with its high volume of abandoned houses and lots, can age your immune system.


But there is a mitigating factor: your neighbors.


If you know and trust and help your neighbors, if you feel a sense of community and share common values with your neighbors, there's a term for that. It's called "social cohesion," and Allison Aiello’s research shows strong social cohesion can help "protect against" the negative health effects of abandoned houses, like decreased thymic function.


Aiello says she wasn't necessarily surprised to find social cohesion's protective feature of the immune system; social cohesion's been associated with other positive health outcomes in previous studies. But she does see the creation of strong community ties as "one potential lever" -- in addition to improving policies that address foreclosures early on -- that could be pulled to "influence health and improve immune function or other health functions if these relationships pan out to be causal and are replicated in other studies and not just in cross-sectional data as we examined here." Aiello says she's in talks with Detroit's new public health director, Abdul El-Sayed, about using data from the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study to promote "new public health efforts" in the city.


Today, Bill Hickey knows almost everybody in his neighborhood by name, and they sometimes stop by to grab some veggies out of his garden. He helped start a youth garden in the lot behind his house, and he's an active member of the Neighbors Building Brightmoor community group. But when he moved in seven years ago, he didn’t know anyone. And remember, he was scared; he didn’t want to be there.


But he and his wife went to work immediately on their garden. It was just an abandoned lot covered with weeds and bricks and pieces of concrete. They spent two days out there clearing and weeding and digging.


On the third day, the guys who lived across the street came over to introduce themselves, and offered to help. Soon enough other neighbors stopped by, introduced themselves, and offered to help. And Hickey says that feeling of fear he had started to slip away.


"I think what people would find if they came and lived here is just a real sense of community purpose," says Hickey, "a real sense of caring for one another, and that’s, I don’t know, what more you can ask?"


So, does he think that knowing his neighbor affects him physically? He chuckles and says, "Well, I'm 71 and I'm still helping with this garden and other things. You know, I'd be happy to chalk that up to having good neighbors."


And now, there’s some research to back that up.


Findings from the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study will be published later this year in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.



Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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