The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 12, 2012

Do personal vulnerabilities predict who lives in precarious housing?

July 12, 2012

People who are disabled, living in poverty, or have little education can be particularly vulnerable to shocks that can affect their life chances. But another class of vulnerabilities has to do with where people live—for example, old housing may be more precarious as it costs more to maintain and overcrowded conditions can have adverse effects on children and parents. We took a look at this connection to ask whether personal vulnerabilities are good predictors of living in precarious housing.

We found that vulnerable people live in precarious housing more often than those without vulnerabilities, controlling for other demographic and regional factors. Some of this concentration was a result of income, some a result of personal and household traits, including race, that still hinder equal housing opportunity. Some vulnerabilities led to different precarious housing conditions. For example, blacks are less likely to overpay or live in overcrowded housing, but more likely to live in multifamily housing (controlling for other factors). Hispanics are more likely to live in overcrowded housing (controlling for other factors).

We find that income matters more than any other single factor in Americans’ ability to avoid precarious housing. Poor families stand out as especially disadvantaged. While perhaps not surprising, it is alarming because these households have the least financial cushion should something go wrong in their housing situation—say if they are forced to move or to make expensive repairs. Individuals and families at the intersection of precarious housing and personal vulnerability are most at risk. They are the households most likely to move frequently as a result of financial stress, leading to potentially damaging instability.

What can be done? Federal support for housing, neighborhoods, and transit systems is key. State and local policies and programs also matter. Regions should play a larger role, but few have developed a robust capacity to act in a coordinated way. And our findings affirm that income supports for the poor (whether in-kind or monetary) will continue to be critical for vulnerable households.

 

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