Why Housing Matters for Upward Mobility: Evidence and Indicators for Practitioners and Policymakers

Research Report

Why Housing Matters for Upward Mobility: Evidence and Indicators for Practitioners and Policymakers

Abstract

Housing can be an essential tool for upward mobility, giving families a strong foundation to move out of poverty. Too often, however, housing policy narrowly focuses on economic success as upward mobility’s key indicator. But a person’s power, autonomy, and value in their community are equally essential components.

This brief arms communities, practitioners, and policymakers with evidence on how several aspects of housing affect these three dimensions of upward mobility, particularly for communities of color. We focus on the following five housing goals that work together to influence holistic upward mobility and offer ways to measure progress toward those goals.

  1. Housing Quality
    Housing quality refers to the condition of the unit and its ability to protect and promote the physical and mental health of those who live there. Substandard housing has been linked to poor economic, health, and socio-emotional outcomes, as well as negative academic and behavioral outcomes for children. Poor quality housing can also be energy inefficient, draining finances.
  2. Housing Affordability
    Housing affordability refers to a household’s ability to pay for adequate housing without a significant financial burden. Living in an affordable home can promote a household’s ability to save and build wealth. A high housing cost burden has also been linked to psychological distress, which can inhibit a household’s power and autonomy.
  3. Housing Stability
    Housing stability reflects a person’s ability to stay in their home without unplanned or unwanted disruptions or moves, such as those caused by foreclosures or evictions. Residential stability allows people to invest in their social relationships, communities, health, and education, while instability can lead to stress, job loss, and even low rates of civic engagement. Eviction is a particularly destabilizing event for families that can have social and psychological effects. And homelessness represents a complete lack of housing stability.
  4. Housing that Builds Assets and Wealth
    Homeownership can provide pathways to upward mobility through home equity, credit, and asset-building. But housing builds wealth only if households are able to buy a home, make mortgage payments, and benefit from their home’s equity. Large gaps in homeownership and home equity persist between whites and communities of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and Native populations.
  5. Neighborhood Context
    Housing is more than a unit, and the set of resources, opportunities, and characteristics of the neighborhood can all help either boost or inhibit upward mobility for residents. Low-poverty neighborhoods have been considered proxies for opportunity, but other characteristics—like lower income and racial segregation, access to transit, affordable housing, and higher-quality schools—matter as well. While the specific ingredients that render a neighborhood “high opportunity” are still being explored, several organizations have created indices that aim to measure and identify neighborhood that support upward mobility.

Together, this “bundle” of housing goals interacts in a variety of ways to significantly affect a household’s chance of upward mobility, though whether an outcome helps or hurts those chances may not be clear by examining one outcome in isolation. Families sometimes have to make trade-offs between goals, for example, finding stable housing at the expense of living in a low-resourced neighborhood. Programs that support one housing goal may have mixed or negative effects on another. Understanding the magnitude and direction of these interactions could significantly help households, practitioners, and policymakers focus on the tradeoffs that are likely to yield the greatest long-term mobility benefits.

More details about the research evidence supporting the relationship between these goals, specific metrics and upward mobility can be found in the full paper. We hope this evidence-based guidance can help researchers, practitioners, and policymakers understand how housing policies can be an important tool in advancing upward mobility and measure and monitor these local housing conditions over time.

Research Area: 

Centers

Cross-Center Initiative

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