A new brief from the Children's HealthWatch (CHW) research study clearly demonstrates what many in the affordable housing, public health, asset building, and anti-poverty spheres have long known: that stable housing is foundational for children's health and family well-being. (CHW is a multi-city study of the impact of economic and social policies on young children and their families. Additional studies, reports, and information about the data are available on their site here.)
In the brief, data drawn from a sample 6,000 families with children under age four living in Massachusetts show that children whose families had moved two or more times in the past year were 59% more likely to have been hospitalized than were children in housing-secure families. Furthermore, families who were behind on their rent were more likely to struggle to feed all members of the households adequately, to have had utilities shut off, and to forgo needed health care for a child. Children from these families were 52% more likely to be at risk for developmental delays.
CHW's brief outlines policy approaches that would ensure that children (particularly infants and toddlers who are vulnerable to hardship) are living in stable, safe housing situations. Specifically, they advocate for investment in long-term solutions to provide affordable housing to lower-income families, while in the shorter term supporting emergency shelter systems with adequate funding streams. One in five American children live below the federal poverty line and housing costs consume a huge share of many low-income families' budgets. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more then 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing, and a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States."
With winter approaching in many parts of the country, the need for emergency housing is urgent. Here in D.C., the Washington Post reports that, "continued fallout from the recession and lack of affordable housing has contributed to an 18 percent increase in family homelessness this year over last." The wait list for shelter housing in D.C. is over 500 families long but beds are currently sitting empty, as city officials navigate funding issues and regulations that will require them to house everyone when the temperature drops below freezing. The long term picture for housing assistance in the nation's capital is also grim: the wait list for rental assistance (that is, public housing units or housing vouchers) is up to over 67,000 families (or about a 20 year wait for those seeking a one or two bedroom apartment) and the list may soon close due to its unwieldy nature.
Data from CHW make plain the profound impact housing instability has on the health, growth, and development of children. Because homeownership has been a historically sound path to financial security, asset building practitioners have frequently focused on the wealth building potential of housing. However, this approach may not fully encompass the importance stable housing plays for families at all income levels. As discussed at the recent Assets Learning Conference on a panel about the impact of the recession on lower-income communities, homeownership as a secure wealth building strategy has faltered in recent years. High rates of foreclosure and the prevalence of negative home equity have translated into less stability for families, not more. As the panelists from this session can attest, the asset building community has struggled mightily to address this tension. On the one hand, homeownership can provide stability, a path to the middle class, and is the largest asset most families will ever own. However, it can also be a tremendous financial gamble: the housing market's recent trajectory and the documented impact discriminatory lending practices have had on communities of color have stripped wealth from families and forced many into tenuous living situations.
What we've been leaving out is an understanding that stable housing is much more than an asset building opportunity. As my colleague Aleta Sprague put it in a conversation, "the field’s focus on the home as a family’s biggest financial asset--while important--can lose sight of the other, less measurable functions that the home plays in creating stability, comfort, etc. In other words, the home is much more than an “asset.”" And as CHW's research shows, stable housing (whether through homeownership, affordable rental housing, or some other means) is a key way to ensure that low-income children and their parents aren't missing critical opportunities for optimal nutrition, healthy brain development, and necessary health care.
Therefore, what we really need is a meaningful conversation from policymakers at all levels on an actionable plan to end homelessness, ensure adequate affordable housing for families, and support pathways to housing stability through robust protection for renters and by opening doors to homeownership for those who want to go that route. The asset building community can help make the case that creating housing stability for families needs to be a top priority for local, state, and federal policymakers.