The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 6, 2017

Improving the lives of kids in public housing

Ben Carson, confirmed as secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) late last week, will soon make decisions that affect all public housing residents, including seniors, the disabled, working families, and families with young children. Children tend to be forgotten in debates about imposing limits on public housing, and few policy or program initiatives respond to the challenges they face. Carson could call attention to the challenges and coordinate a concerted response.

Thirty-three percent of households in public housing have a member age 62 or older and 39 percent have children, while 21 percent of residents have a disability. Yet, calls to promote self-sufficiency or impose work requirements often assume that all public housing residents are able and should be willing to work, but ignore the elderly, the disabled, or youth.

The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) has decided to focus on meeting the needs of its youngest residents through its Impact 5000 Initiative, aimed at improving opportunities for the 5,000 youth who live in its developments. DCHA designed Impact 5000 to attract public- and private-sector partners to improve the lives of youth and families in public housing.

To inform its work, the DCHA commissioned the Urban Institute to produce a comprehensive needs assessment of families with children in its family public housing developments. Urban worked with partners from Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia and with DCHA residents. The assessment covered topics from economic opportunities to safety and health. The assessment found that although many children are thriving, a substantial portion face serious challenges that threaten their ability to succeed in school.

Adults surveyed reported not only health challenges they face (30 percent reported fair or poor health), but also those their children face:

  • 33 percent reported having a child with asthma
  • 21 percent reported having an overweight child
  • 14 percent reported having a child with a chronic health condition requiring regular, ongoing care

Educational challenges also were striking. Of residents with children ages 13 to 17,

  • 37 percent reported having a child who repeated a grade or having been contacted by school about behavioral problems;
  • 32 percent reported their child had been suspended, excluded, or expelled from school; and
  • 29 percent reported having been contacted by Child Protective Services.

Solutions to these challenges require sustained and significant resources. For youth, improving educational and professional opportunities and providing a stable, safe environment are paramount, but assessment findings, such as those on the high rate of school suspensions and expulsions, point to a lack of stability. As Urban Institute senior fellow Susan Popkin noted during a panel discussion on the study findings on January 18, “If we want our kids to be successful, they need to be able to stay in school, and that worries me, that there’s that much churn.”

The 5,000 youth living in DCHA public housing represent a fraction of kids facing special challenges, from those living in units supported by housing vouchers to those outside the system, such as homeless youth or those in families on the waitlist for public housing (currently 40,000 in DC). They also represent the challenges faced by children in public housing across the country as they struggle with similar challenges and lack resources that could help them succeed. As HUD contemplates its way forward in a new administration and with a new secretary, policymakers need to be cognizant of the role public housing plays in the lives of its young residents and the ways it can help support the lives and development of its youth. 

Children play in Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington, on August 3, 2015. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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