The threat of losing your home is stressful enough to make you ill, it stands to reason. Now two economists have measured just how unhealthy the foreclosure crisis has been in some of the hardest-hit areas of the U.S.
New research by Janet Currie of Princeton University and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University shows a direct correlation between foreclosure rates and the health of residents in Arizona, California, Florida and New Jersey. The economists concluded in a paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research that an increase of 100 foreclosures corresponded to a 7.2% rise in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for hypertension, and an 8.1% increase for diabetes, among people aged 20 to 49.
Each rise of 100 foreclosures was also associated with 12% more visits related to anxiety in the same age category. And the same rise in foreclosures was associated with 39% more visits for suicide attempts among the same group, though this still represents a small number of patients, the researchers say.
Teasing out cause and effect can be delicate, and correlation doesn’t necessarily mean foreclosures directly cause health problems. Financial duress, among other issues, could lead to health problems—and cause foreclosures, too.
The economists didn’t find similar patterns with diseases such as cancer or elective surgeries such as hip replacement, leading them to conclude that areas with high foreclosures are seeing mostly an increase of stress-related ailments.
Tuesday brought news of further weakness in the housing market as the closely watched S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index came in 5.9% lower for the second quarter from a year earlier. Continued job losses and economic uncertainty could weigh on home prices and make for another wave of foreclosures, economists say.
It may not just be foreclosure victims arriving at hospitals—but neighbors also grappling with depleting equity in their biggest investment.
“You see foreclosures having a general effect on the neighborhood,” Ms. Currie says. “Everybody’s stressed out. There is a connection between people’s economic well being and their physical well being.”
The situation got so bad for Patricia Graci, a 51-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., resident, that she canceled a recent court appearance related to the foreclosure on her house because she couldn’t get out of bed. After her husband lost his job as a painter in 2008, the Gracis relied on savings to pay their mortgage for two years.
“Everything was going downhill. My savings were going down to nothing,” says Ms. Graci. “When I realized the money wasn’t there anymore, I started getting very anxious and depressed.”
She says her lender advised her to default on her mortgage to qualify for a loan modification. Ms. Graci, who was an assistant bank manager and already had rheumatoid arthritis, says she began seeing a therapist and landed in the hospital with difficulty breathing in December 2009. A few weeks later came the foreclosure notice from the bank.
“They told me it was more anxiety and stress that made me wind up in the hospital than the arthritis,” Ms. Graci says. After repeatedly missing work due to illness, Ms. Graci went on long-term disability.
The areas that have the highest foreclosure rates also tend to have a large portion of their population unemployed, underemployed or uninsured. Ms. Currie says the research accounted for this by instituting controls for persistent differences among areas, such as poverty rates, as well as for county-level trends. Much of the 2005-2009 period examined came before unemployment peaked, too, she says. The researchers examined hospital-visit numbers and foreclosure rates in all ZIP Codes that had those data available.
The areas that have the highest foreclosure rates also tend to have a large portion of their population unemployed, underemployed or uninsured. Ms. Currie says the research accounted for this by instituting controls for persistent differences among areas, such as poverty rates, as well as for county-level trends. The time period examined, 2005 to 2007, was before unemployment peaked, she says. The researchers examined hospital-visit numbers and foreclosure rates in all ZIP Codes that had those data available.
They found that areas in the top fifth of foreclosure activity have more than double the number of visits for preventable conditions that generally don’t require hospitalization than the bottom fifth.
At the local hospital in Homestead, Fla., a city of mostly single-family, middle-class homes about 30 miles from Miami, the emergency room has been bustling. Emergency visits to the hospital in 2010 more than doubled from 10 years earlier to about 67,000, and emergency department medical director Otto Vega says they will surpass 70,000 this year. Homestead has the highest rate of mortgage delinquencies in the U.S.—in June, 41% of mortgage holders in the hardest-hit ZIP Code of Homestead were 90 days or more past due on payments, according to real-estate data firm CoreLogic Inc.
While the most common ailments are respiratory problems and pneumonia, Dr. Vega notes an increase in psychosomatic disorders, such as patients with chest pain and shortness of breath, and others who feel suicidal. “A lot of young people, less than 50 years old, have chest pain. You know it’s anxiety,” he says.
Nationwide, overall emergency-room visits have also been rising, growing 5% from 2007 to 127.3 million in 2009, according to the American Hospital Association. But inpatient stays have largely kept pace with population growth over the last decade, says Beth Feldpush, a vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Association of Public Hospitals.
The number of people covered by employer-sponsored insurance has been falling, she says. “When people don’t have insurance, they put off seeking care for too long and end up in the emergency room.”
And some of those seeking treatment had medical conditions before foreclosure—but the stress of losing their homes has exacerbated their ailments.
In 2008, Norman Adelman of Freehold, N.J., called his lender to ask for a forbearance of three or four months, saying he was about to undergo knee-replacement surgery. The lender complied and Mr. Adelman, who runs a home-energy business, says he began scaling back his work. He underwent needed tests and doctor visits.
After two months of not paying his mortgage, he successfully applied for a loan modification, taking his monthly payment from $2,700 to $1,900. But then the loan was sold—and a new servicer didn’t recognize the terms of the arrangement, he says.
Mr. Adelman is fighting the new lender but says he has been in and out of the hospital for the last two years. He never had his knees replaced and is now on antidepressants and antianxiety medication.
“He’s deteriorated. He’s had sleepless nights,” says his wife, Shulamis. “You always have this fear of being thrown out. He’s just gotten worse and worse from not sleeping.”
Earlier this month, after working with the nonprofit Staten Island Legal Services, Ms. Graci received a trial loan modification. “I’m happy but I am still scared,” she says. “I want a permanent solution. I don’t know if I am in the clear.”
Write to S. Mitra Kalita at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
The researchers examined the years 2005 through 2009. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied the research only covered 2005 through 2007