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Growing up in public housing in the South Bronx, Diana Hernández learned firsthand about the connection between poverty, living arrangements, and bad health. A sociologist at Columbia University, Hernández now studies these interrelationships in her native neighborhood where she continues to live today.

STAT caught up with her about smoking bans, becoming a landlord, and how she avoided catching Legionnaires’ disease.

Presumably, Columbia pays you well enough that you don’t have to live in the Bronx, the unhealthiest county in New York State. Why do you stay? 

I grew up in this neighborhood. In so many ways it’s shaped who I am and why I’m a professor.


Why do you think it’s essential to study health in the context of the social environment?

The populations I’m looking at are very low-income, in low-resourced settings. The disadvantages are already happening at the neighborhood level, in the household, and among individuals. It’s commonplace to have someone who is obese, diabetic, hypertensive, has some predisposition to cancer, demonstrating signs of psychosocial stress.

This past summer, there was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia, on a block you walk down every day. Why do you think you escaped infection when so many others fell ill or even died?

The population here is already vulnerable. Their health is already compromised. I was able to breathe in the same air and not [get sick].


The federal government last month proposed banning smoking in public housing units nationwide. Based on your research, what’s the best way to enforce that policy?

The stress of everyday life of the poor leads them to smoke. So you have to make [the policy] resident-centered and think about why are people not compliant. They may have other health issues, so going outside is not convenient.

You also study people who can’t afford to keep the lights on. What can be done about this energy insecurity?

We shouldn’t live in a society where a basic need like light would be determined by someone’s socioeconomic status. We have a bunch of people who live in the dark and light candles.

Have you ever faced a housing problem yourself?

I don’t know that any of us has been spared. During a gut renovation I lived without gas for seven months. I couldn’t cook. There was a time when we only had cold water. [Housing problems are] more pronounced in low-income housing settings, but a lot of the issues appear across the board.

You now own seven rental properties in your neighborhood. Has ownership turned out to be a good business venture?

Sure has! I supplement my income as a professor. I live for free. Some of my tenants have moved on to buy their own property. I’m ready to buy another one.

The tabloids aren’t going to “out” you as a slumlord, right? 

Not at all. To me, this is about having people live with dignity. I can’t talk about that in my work and then profit from that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

How do you keep your units well maintained when other owners say they can’t afford to?

I temper my greed. It’s a human thing to want more — and I do, of course. At some point, I want to be a multimillionaire because I develop properties that are worth that. But I really believe in the model of conscious capitalism. We can really do well by society, in my case by my tenants, and also live well.

Do you think your modest upbringings shaped this view?

Having nothing to lose really does open up so many possibilities for what you can gain.

Diana Hernández is an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. This interview has been edited and condensed.