The housing crisis sounded all kinds of alarms for policymakers and the public about what happens when families can't afford their homes, or when they lose the stability that a secure home provides. We've heard about the effects of foreclosures on neighborhoods, the weight of housing stress on human health, the impact of lost equity on household wealth for huge portions of the U.S. population.
But something has been absent in all this talk about how unstable housing in any form affects families.
"The attention raised by the mortgage crisis and the foreclosure crisis really missed a lot of central aspects of housing that are likely to be important for children," says Rebekah Levine Coley, a professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
Notably, it's the quality of housing – the presence of peeling paint or cockroaches, broken appliances or damaged walls – that most strongly predicts a child's well-being and development.
Coley and colleagues from Tufts University identified this in research recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology. They looked at data on 2,400 low-income children in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio, as part of a six-year longitudinal study that had been designed to track child development within poor families in the years after welfare reform. Over that time, 1999-2005, researchers (Coley was one of the original investigators) collected all kinds of data on the environments those families lived in, as well as the behavioral, emotional and cognitive development of the children.
In retrospect, that study amassed precisely the kind of data you'd need to understand how housing itself – not the social environment of a "family home" – might influence children. The study recorded whether a home was rented or owned, or rented through public housing or subsidies, how affordable it was relative to a family's income, how often families moved from house to house, and the quality of the property. Researchers looked for working refrigerators, holes in the wall, rodents, functioning heat and hot water, adequate light and fresh air – many of them signs of poor-quality housing outside of a family's control. All of the families were low-income, but some had considerably more run-down housing than others.
Controlling for other factors like a parent's employment status and income, Coley and her co-authors concluded that the poor quality of housing more strongly and consistently predicted a child's well-being than all of those other housing characteristics (including whether the home was considered "affordable" to the parents or not). Children in more derelict housing had lower average reading and math skills. They had more emotional and behavioral problems. And as families moved over time into worse housing, the children functioned less well, too.
It's easy to suspect correlation here instead of causation, but the study is compelling with its long time frame and broad sample.
"One of the concerns is that parents who don’t have the skills or the resources or the energy to find and maintain an affordable or a high-quality home might also be parents who have some other characteristics," Coley says. "They might be more likely to be unemployed or have mental health problems, or poor parenting practices. But we tried to parse out what part of this is due to the housing itself versus what was due to all of these other characteristics happening in families."
Coley suspects that crummy housing has an impact on children through the behavior of their parents. A hole in the wall or a broken boiler may induce stress in parents or cause them mental health problems, further hamstringing their ability to parent children and maintain regular family activities. It's also possible – although this study can't address this – that a run-down home environment (picture cockroaches and peeling lead paint) might have direct impacts on a child's health, influencing his or her development in other ways.
We often celebrate the value for children of a safe and comfortable home, a place that's a refuge from other problems. This study suggests that we may be ignoring the costs of the opposite scenario: when it is the home itself that's the problem.
In Coley's view, this means that we should be worrying as much – if not more – about the quality of housing as its affordability. Low-income children in high-crime neighborhoods, she adds, are also likely to spend considerably more time in their homes than are middle-class suburban children who have safe playgrounds, schools and after-school activities. In other words, children vulnerable to the worst housing also tend to spend the most time in it.
In the concrete, this research also implies that this situation – and many others like it – may be an even bigger problem than we realize.