The blog of the Urban Institute
April 24, 2019

America’s Housing Is Getting More Crowded. How Will That Affect Children?

April 24, 2019

Growing up in a crowded home can have negative consequences on a child’s well-being. Crowded housing conditions can put stress on relationships between residents, and children may be particularly vulnerable to the lack of privacy and space in a crowded home.

An article I coauthored shows that living in a crowded home can negatively affect academic performance, educational outcomes, behavioral health, and physical health. But the field is lacking more robust and consistent evidence on crowding's effects, independent of socioeconomic conditions.

Crowding is a growing problem

Households are becoming increasingly exposed to crowded housing conditions, with levels higher than those prior to the Great Recession. According to data from the American Community Survey, the share of households in renter-occupied units living in crowded housing conditions spiked from 5.5 percent in 2007 to 6.5 percent in 2010 (figure 1).

Although the share of households in crowded housing has declined since 2010, it has not returned to prerecession levels. The number of households living in renter-occupied units following the burst of the housing bubble has also increased from less than 37 million in 2007 to 43.4 million in 2017.

figure 2

Housing crowding is becoming a more common experience among our nation’s children. The number of children living doubled up with another family or in a hotel or motel increased by 3 percent—or nearly 1,071,000 children—from the 2014–2015 academic year to the 2015–2016 academic year. The Voices of Youth Count data show that from 2016 to 2017, 1.81 million youth ages 13 to 25 were couch surfing in the US.

We need updated data on crowding

Data to investigate the effects of crowded housing on children are limited. But we could learn more about families who are doubling up because they can’t afford housing through the American Housing Survey (AHS). 

The AHS is administered every other year on the odd year, and the 2019 AHS is currently in the design phase. In 2013, the AHS included a topical survey module on households doubling up. Repeating the module on doubling up in 2019 would be valuable to boost understanding of this issue.

California presents another opportunity to learn about crowding because it has the country’s highest rate of crowding within its renter-occupied housing units (figure 2).

figure 2

The Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey (L.A.FANS) currently contains two waves of data on the same families over time, with detailed child well-being indicators on academic performance and health, as well as information on housing crowding. These data could reveal the effects of living in crowded housing on children, but this detailed information only goes through 2007. A subset of data was collected for a third wave, but information about child outcomes was not collected.

Supporting a full third wave of data collection for L.A.FANS could be especially valuable in painting a clearer picture of the mechanisms through which housing conditions affect children’s lives and later life outcomes. Understanding housing crowding effects in one of the most consistently crowded counties in the country could better reveal the impact of affordable housing shortages throughout the nation.

Photo by Lihee Avidan/Getty Images.

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