The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 13, 2016

Shelter from the storm: The role of housing in stabilizing children’s lives

December 14, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

Robert Frost once said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Frost refers to home as a conceptual place where strong family and community ties buffer us against hard times. But for most of us, home is also a physical refuge that “takes us in” during the literal and figurative storms of life. Not having a place to call one’s own makes it difficult to fend off and address other challenges.    

Of all the domains we will explore in the Urban Institute’s new research project on child instability, housing is among the most important. Without the security of stable housing, a child’s experience of stress is pervasive and too often traumatizing, with consequences across a range of outcomes, especially educational achievement.

Insecure housing comes in many forms. Some families are considered insecurely housed because they spend too much of their income on housing; others face poor housing quality, overcrowding, and homelessness. Many unemployed and low-income households that lack access to affordable housing swap one form of housing insecurity for another by “doubling up” (living with relatives or nonkin). Young children living in overcrowded housing or living with another family for economic reasons are more likely to be food insecure.

The stress of making monthly rent and mortgage payments can be destabilizing. Even many so-called middle-class families experience repeated setbacks and challenges in other areas of their lives, such as getting health care or having enough food, because they need to prioritize housing payments. 

On the flip side, secure housing can stabilize families and children. Recent research finds that for children whose families receive housing subsidies, longer stints in subsidized housing can lead to lower incarceration rates and higher pay as adults. The researchers hypothesize that being released from the budget constraint of paying full private-sector rent and from concerns about losing their housing might free parents to focus more time and money on their children. 

We have much to learn about housing’s role in childhood stability. Several of my colleagues have research under way on whether supportive housing models, which combine affordable housing with intensive social services, can produce better outcomes for children and families in the child welfare system. These models have provided more secure housing and better outcomes for chronically homeless adults. For children at high risk of ongoing instability across numerous domains, these models have the potential to decrease child abuse and neglect, strengthen parenting, and keep at-risk families together.

We also need to learn more about how secure housing might provide a foundation on which other outcomes, like educational achievement and health, can be improved for all children. More research on the important role of housing in stabilizing families will help policymakers, practitioners, and community leaders leverage its benefits to produce brighter futures for children.

Photo by Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

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