What the housing affordability crisis could mean for children’s well-being

Experts say housing instability could worsen education, health and other trajectories for children in affected families.

The housing affordability crisis that’s hitting chunks of the United States could have implications far into the future. Experts say while housing instability is pressuring families in this moment, it could change education, health and other trajectories for children in those affected families.

That has implications for the economy and entire communities, possibly for years to come.

Today’s housing crisis is multifaceted, with housing costs rising so high some families are kept out of the market entirely, while those whose incomes were slashed during the pandemic have fallen so far behind that the Census Bureau estimates 7 million households as of late June face eviction when the temporary moratorium on eviction enacted during the pandemic lifts at the end of the month. Expanded unemployment benefits will expire in September in states that didn’t curtail them early.

Peter Hepburn, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark, said the eviction process “almost certainly” has had significant long-term repercussions for kids: less stable housing in worse neighborhoods, worse living conditions, disrupted social networks, etc. “Mobility can be tough on kids, and forced mobility all the more so. But there’s very little data that will allow us to measure the full impacts, so we just barely begin to understand the full set of consequences,” he said by email.

Many families are already homeless, but not all of them live on the streets or in shelters, said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare in College Park, Maryland. Many stay with friends or sleep in cars or move from one living situation to another.

Habitat for Humanity calls stable housing “foundational” to children’s growth and well-being. Surveys show families with safe, stable and affordable housing have fewer health problems, better school performance, less psychological stress and more self-assured parents.

Children benefit from a sense of stability: Attending the same school, being around the same people, having a safe place to eat and sleep, knowing they’ll have food, said Kevin Shafer, Brigham Young University associate professor of sociology.

It’s hard to hide a housing crisis from them, he added. “Children are more than aware of those things happening in their lives. Without stable housing, they are going to be exposed to environments that are potentially problematic, living in neighborhoods that may not be healthy or are potentially not safe. We could be setting off some pretty nasty things.”

Hitting children especially hard

When families move frequently, children tend to do worse on various outcomes, including cognitive tests, in school and in social environments, said Shafer. Not having stable housing can affect development, behavior, and physical and mental health. Those not only matter in the moment, but long-term, possibly changing whether a child graduates high school or goes to college and where she ends up. 

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The Urban Institute’s Housing Matters Initiative calls housing “the first rung on the ladder to economic opportunity” that determines wide-ranging outcomes for kids. Poor-quality housing is associated with more depression, anxiety and aggression well into young adulthood. 

The State of America’s Children 2020” said 111,592 children experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2018. Experts say the number has likely grown as more parents lost jobs or hours and the cost of housing and other basics like food rose. Nationally, 31% of kids live in a household “burdened by housing costs,” meaning costing at least 30% of household income. The report said 5.9 million children are in families with very low income and no housing assistance.

A new Harvard report noted that 1 in 4 renters pay more than half their income for housing. But low or lost wages aren’t the only drivers of the housing crisis. There are lots of reasons families struggle to keep a roof overhead, starting with a housing shortage.

The National Association of Realtors has noted an “under-building gap,” while the National Association of Home Builders recently reported that “home buyers in the bottom one-fourth of the market have been squeezed entirely out of the market for new construction.” It said not one of the single-family houses built last year was priced below $100,000 — and just 1% were priced below $150,000. Supply chain problems from the pandemic were partly to blame for rising costs, it noted, but most housing construction in the last decade or so was aimed at higher-income buyers.

The pandemic has cut across income groups, putting some families with more assets in need of housing-related relief. The Federal Housing Finance Agency just changed a policy to help COVID-19-impacted homeowners who have significant equity, who had been blocked from restructuring mortgage payments. Now lenders can choose to reduce the interest rate even when loan-to-value ratio is below 80%. The Consumer Federation of America said without that change, homeowners with both COVID-19-related financial woes and significant equity had to sell their house or face foreclosure if they couldn’t make the payment.

The State of America’s Children report noted challenges educating children who are homeless, access to school complicated because they move around and often lack school supplies and clothes, transportation money and records needed to enroll in a new school. “The trauma, poor physical and mental health, hunger and fatigue many experience continue to challenge them when they get to school.”

Substandard, but more affordable, housing creates other problems, like unmitigated lead paint that poses developmental risks for young kids. Crime-ridden neighborhoods amp up stress and conflict.

“You can see how this would make economic mobility a lot harder for kids who are experiencing housing instability. It’s a lot harder to have economic mobility if you’re having worse educational outcomes, worse health outcomes and all the rest,” said Sigrid Luhr, visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She believes housing is part of the big picture of growing inequality, “transmitting class advantages or not across generations.”

The issue, however, is not just what precarious housing brings with it, but also what it takes away. Shafer notes the “incredible cost of housing” for people with moderate or few resources. “One of my big concerns is how are families affording these houses or apartments and where are they not spending money in order to make housing work?” He called it unlikely that people struggling to afford housing are spending on activities that promote child development, education or overall well-being.

Trickle-down trauma

Children do best with a caregiver who cares about them and in a familiar world with people and experiences they can count on, including housing, said Ellen Wartella, professor of psychology, communication, human development and social policy at Northwestern University. When kids recognize their parents are anxious, they have a higher incidence of illness; even young children have emotional and mental health problems.

“It can be disastrous for young children,” Wartella said. “We are right now living through a period that is putting enormous stress on children and the consequences are potentially long-term, the environment toxic for many of them.”

Financial stress trickles down to children, said Shafer. Many parents feel housing pressures acutely and “we know when parents are stressed, kids pay a price — from parents being less involved and engaged with them to more conflict at home.”

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That happens on a spectrum. In extreme cases, housing and financial pressures create potential for substance abuse and domestic violence, he said. “And I don’t think we should forget what people are going to do to make this work, including working longer hours or more jobs, which take time away from the kids. It’s a big effect.”

The pandemic has pressured a range of families. A study in Journal of Urban Health concluded that the pandemic “precipitated catastrophic job loss, unprecedented unemployment rates and severe economic hardship in renter households.” The researchers found housing “precarity” and rising eviction dangerous to public health.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that crowding, common when housing is inadequate, increases household food insecurity, which is linked to “poor health, lower weight and developmental risk among young children.” The authors said policies boosting housing security improve children’s health.

Housing instability can even tear families apart. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Community Psychology found “relatively high risk of family separation among families experiencing housing instability and homelessness.” 

White said that before the pandemic, 1 in 10 children who entered foster care was removed due to inadequate housing. For around 28,000 children a year — roughly 10,370 families — that was the specific reason. She said the numbers refer only to families where a judge said, “Mr. Smith, we would really unify your family, but you live in your car. You’ve met all the other standards we’ve set for you.”

The impact on kids is so significant that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends medical exams, especially in low-income areas, include asking if families are behind on rent, have moved multiple times or experience homelessness.

The pandemic highlighted vulnerabilities. With massive job disruptions, many middle-class people sought help for the first time. Luhr thinks that might have increased people’s sympathy and understanding that many issues related to poverty “aren’t just personal problems, but they’re problems that are affected by broader social issues that are circumstances outside of people’s control.”

An affordable housing crisis isn’t just bad for individuals and families, but for communities and the country, said Shafer.

Wartella predicts overlooked long-term effects could include having a generation that isn’t innovative and that lacks leaders. “It terrifies me that when we talk about the economy, we talk only about loss of jobs, not the long-term consequences for the country.”

Luhr believes children and older adults have things in common, including that they may not control their situations. She said concerted effort was made to reduce poverty among the elderly through programs like Social Security, but less-generous help for children is tempered by a degree of blaming parents without considering individual circumstances.

What communities and families need

Each community should have enough housing of different types so someone can afford housing without spending more than 30% of their income, said White. If the market doesn’t make that happen, regulators at different levels of government have tools. Housing and Urban Development, for example, has a housing choice voucher program to help, she said.

One factor people don’t consider is the extent to which middle- and upper-income parents have subsidized their children’s living arrangements, allowing landlords to inflate rents, said White.

And the pandemic fed the housing divide, helping the haves have more or hold their ground, while the have-nots fell further behind. “We in the professional class were inconvenienced but we didn’t lose a paycheck. But the service class was completely devastated. I don’t know how we’re ever going to recover from that unless the government intervenes,” White said.

Faced with housing instability, Shafer said parents must create stability elsewhere for the sake of their children, especially stable relationships with parents, relatives and friends. And he said to limit the impact of parental stress. “Make sure you are spending time with your kids without thinking about those things. Focus on the children and let them know they’re loved.”

While kids may pick up on stress anyway, Shafer recommends not talking about financial pressure in front of them. “Let them be kids.”