By Mark Tosczak


Verna Torain has lived in east Greensboro’s Cottage Grove neighborhood for more than twenty-five years. When she first moved to the community, many residents worked in nearby factories.

“Now everything’s closed down,” says Torain, a volunteer and community activist. “There’s no jobs.”

The economic toll has left its mark on Cottage Grove. Houses and apartments have fallen into disrepair. And it’s not just buildings suffering. Job loss and substandard housing are two factors contributing to a host of other issues, including health problems.

The connections among housing, sickness and related problems are the primary focus of Dr. Stephen Sills’ Center for Housing and Community Studies at UNC Greensboro. Sills, an associate professor of sociology, is using statistical analysis and software to better understand these issues. He works closely with residents, plus nonprofit organizations, government agencies, foundations and healthcare providers to design, test and implement solutions.

“I’m working on health one day; I’m working on educational outcomes on another,” he says. “I’m working on mortgage markets and fair housing. It looks like I’m all over the place, but what I’m doing is taking problems that come to me and applying the best research tool I have.”

Sills taps other faculty – such as Dr. Keith Debbage, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and the Bryan School of Business and Economics, and Dr. Ken Gruber at the UNCG Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships – to bring additional expertise to center projects. With the support of a highly competitive Invest Health grant, Sills and his partners – both on campus and in the community – are currently examining the relationship between substandard housing and pediatric asthma in Greensboro.

Last summer, a dozen student researchers used software that pulls photographs from Google Maps’ streetview. The students spent hours viewing images of tens of thousands of Greensboro properties. For each one, they completed a 53-question survey based on the images. For example: Is the property residential or commercial? What’s the condition of the roof or siding? Are there potential code violations such as grass too high or junk cars in the yard?

With that data, software could be used to map out substandard housing “hotspots,” which were cross-referenced with Census data and data from Cone Health’s Emergency Department on pediatric asthma visits. That brought Sills and his team to the Cottage Grove neighborhood.

Sills found the substandard housing hotspots correlated with communities with high levels of poverty, low levels of home ownership and poor health outcomes. Many of the properties are poorly maintained either because their owners can’t afford to repair them or because they have little incentive to invest more capital in rental housing.

The result? A leaking roof creates high levels of moisture inside a home, spurring mold growth, which then exacerbates the asthma of children living there. Holes in a foundation allow insects and pests into a house; roach droppings, rodent waste, dust mites and the like also worsen symptoms and trigger asthma attacks.

Between the data analysis that identify hotspots and proven interventions, such as small repairs and health education, the group hopes to improve Cottage Grove and develop a model for other neighborhoods. Eventually, Sills says, the work could create a model that could be applied across Greensboro or any other city in the U.S.

He has also studied discrimination in housing and mortgage applications, sending testers of different racial, gender and sexual identities to apartment communities and analyzing banking data to see if they’re treated differently.

“It’s a fair-housing issue at the same time that it’s a substandard housing issue,” he says. “It’s a health issue and it’s an economic opportunity issue. They’re really all intricately connected.”

Sills’ research pinpoints and measures how those issues cluster together and how tackling one can affect the rest of them. That’s what Sills cares about most. With any report that comes out of the center, he’s looking for policies changed, community funding generated and numbers of lives impacted.

Ultimately, he says, “It’s ‘what’s the impact on the community?’”


Photography by Mike Dickens

University and community partners gather at the team’s house-turned-community center at Cottage Grove. Pictured (clockwise from left) are: Dr. Stephen Sills, Greensboro Housing Coalition’s Josie Williams, undergraduate researcher Francheska Elliott, former undergraduate researcher and current CHCS staffer Phillip Sheldon, and community activists Sandra Williams and Verna Torain.