A focus on ZIP code brings new partners together

In the last few years, striking data visualizations have demonstrated what many already knew: The places where people live, work, learn, play, and pray impact the health of communities.  In fact, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Time to Act: Investing in the Health of Our Children and Communities states that when it comes to health, one’s “zip code may be more important than [their] genetic code.” The physical design and available amenities of communities – including neighborhood walkability, community zoning, youth development programs, and job training programs – shape human behavior, social interactions, and opportunities to pursue healthy lifestyles.

On-the-ground zip code improvement has not traditionally been the orientation of those in healthcare and public health. But we have natural partners whose mission is to do exactly that: community development corporations, or CDCs. Community development corporations (CDC) are not-for-profit organizations whose mission is to support the social, economic, and physical development of the communities they serve to expand opportunities for their residents and enhance their quality of life.  CDCs accomplish this through physical development, economic development, asset development, and community organizing, building, and empowerment.

In 2014, Health Resources in Action, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, sought to explore the impacts of more intentionally integrating community development and public health. We completed a health impact assessment (HIA) to inform the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) as it developed a new funding opportunity for CDCs: the Community Investment Tax Credit (CITC) Program. And we developed videos and tools to establish the linkages between community development and health, and to demonstrate the business case for partnership. (See links below.)

When we began this work almost three years ago, we were in the early stages of exploring how public health and community development could work together more intentionally and systematically, both locally and statewide. Since then, the Community Investment Tax Credit HIA and the resulting products have catalyzed exciting and sustained conversations and action steps across MA and nationally to make the case for partnerships and investments between community development and health. Here are a few highlights:

  • Following the release of the Community Investment Tax Credit HIA and its related materials, MACDC and the Mel King Institute convened a steering committee engaging community development and health organizations (including HRiA) to collaboratively design and implement a year-long training series, Health and Community Development: Finding the Connections.
  • The Community Investment Tax Credit HIA provided the evidence base for investing in CDCs as a health promotion/ community health-building activity. As a result, Baystate Health’s recent Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) identified “community-level social and economic determinants that impact health” as a priority area, with “housing insecurity” and “housing conditions” identified as sub-priorities. The CHNA provided the basis for grant-making, and two CDCs responded with both broad-based community and economic development strategies, and more traditional healthy home strategies. Baystate Health is making two $250,000 investments and will receive $250,000 back from the CITC program, which they have committed to reinvesting into community health activities – a win-win for community health and community development.
  • Community development is being brought to the health planning table; from the conversations jumpstarted following the Community Investment Tax Credit HIA, Joe Kriesberg, director of MACDC, was invited to sit on the Attorney General Office’s new taskforce that is helping to re-design community benefits guidelines for hospitals.
  • The Health Impact Project recently released a new issue brief, Health Impact Assessment can inform community development decisions: How the HIA process can align sectors in pursuit of shared goals.” This brief, which serves as a resource and introduction to HIA for economic and community development professionals and policymakers, presents three case studies featuring Health Impact Project-funded HIAs including the Community Investment Tax Credit HIA. (See link below.)      

Mounting evidence – detailed in the Community Investment Tax Credit HIA and elsewhere – demonstrates the impact of community development upon health. By working together, doctors and developers alike can support community health improvement and build a culture of health.

Resources and links

Community Investment Tax Credit Health Impact Assessment


Tools to support the integration of health and development

*The Community Investment Tax Credit HIA and its products were supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.