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The New HUD Secretary’s Awards for Healthy Homes, An Interview with Martin Nee

In this column, Martin Nee, Director of the Regional Management and Technical Support Division in HUD’s Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, talks about the new HUD Secretary Awards for Healthy Homes.

Image of a HUD Secretary’s Award with the title of the award superimposed.
The HUD Secretary’s Awards for Healthy Homes recognize organizations with exceptional performance in the area of healthy indoor environments.

What do the new HUD Secretary Awards honor?

At the national level, the Secretary's Awards for Healthy Homes recognize organizations with exceptional performance in the area of healthy indoor environments. There are a number of longstanding Secretary Awards that are important and that recognize exceptional performance in community development, design, historic preservation, and so on. But these new awards recognize that over the last 25 years, more and more research demonstrates how important indoor environments are to health, and many organizations and government agencies have responded with programs that take on the challenge of home health hazards. So, in a sense, the fact that we're getting to Healthy Homes Awards in 2015 recognizes how the healthy homes industry has matured and become part of the mainstream fabric.

For many years, the chief hazard that HUD concerned itself with was lead- based paint in homes. We've had major successes in reducing the number of homes with these hazards and, obviously, the number of kids who've had highly elevated blood lead levels, but the research shows us that there are many other triggers in the home also with health impacts. There are allergens such as mold, pest residues, and environmental tobacco smoke that aggravate asthma. Something that has been around for a long time, but has taken on importance for us, is radon and remediating high levels of radon in people's homes. So, there are a number of different areas where we're focused as a department, and there are people out there doing great work. These awards recognize that great work. 

How are the award winners selected?

First, the awards are divided into several categories. There is an award for public housing and multifamily housing and the people who are working in those venues, and there is an award for public policy on healthy homes. And then there's cross-sector coordination because health organizations and housing organizations and public health organizations all play a role in influencing the housing environment as it impacts health. After the applications are sorted, we have an independent organization working with us under a memorandum of agreement, the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), review the applications. NEHA has a panel of judges that decides which applications best meet the criteria for outcome data and contain the elements that merit award consideration. For example, if we receive an application for the public housing and multifamily housing category, we want to know about the number of residents impacted by the policies and the practices that were instituted and the number or rate of residents with improved health outcomes due to the implementation of healthy homes activities. To be specific, we might look for a reduction in asthmatic episodes among residents, or for scientific measures of the environment, such as a reduction in indoor air pollution resulting from a policy. So, with those outcome criteria, applications are rated, scored, and evaluated against the other applicants in each category.

Judges on the award review panel:

Sonja Koukel, PhD
Community & Environmental Health Specialist

Rebecca Blocker M.S., H.H.S.
Housing & Environmental Design Specialist

Sandra Whitehead, MPA, PhD,
NEHA Healthy Homes and Healthy Communities Technical Advisor (Director of Healthy Community Design, NACCHO, Washington, DC);

Felix Zemel, MCP, MPH, REHS/RS, CEHT, HHS, DAAS,
NEHA Land Use Planning and Design Technical Advisor (Health Agent, Cohasset Board of Health, Cohasset, MA);

Stephan Ruckman,
NEHA Schools and Institutions Technical Advisor (EH Manager, Worthington City Schools, Dublin, OH);

Tara Gurge, MS, RS,
NEHA Radiation and Radon Technical Advisor (EH Agent, Town of Needham Public Health Dept., Needham, MA);

David Gilkey, PhD,
NEHA Air Quality Technical Advisor (Associate Professor, Colorado State University.

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For the public policy category, if we were evaluating a public policy implemented at a state or county or city level, we would look at the number of localities adopting the public policy change. We would also consider the number of residents directly or indirectly affected by the public policy change. Those would be two of the criteria by which a public policy application is scored. NEHA would form a panel that would meet on camera or at some point in time when they would rate and discuss applicants and come up with a list of awardees.

Is there anything else about the award that you'd like to add?

Well, I would thank the people who were involved in the process of judging the awards and the folks, particularly at NEHA, who ran the award process. They did a fantastic job. The overall message is that these awards are being made now because there's a real maturity happening among the healthy homes practitioners. This award recognizes that they have an equal place with some of the practitioners focusing on interests related to housing development, community health, and other housing issues.

Thank you very much.