Children May Suffer Worst Effects of Housing Crunch

The number of children packed into overcrowded homes remains high and comes at a tremendous social cost.
by | January 19, 2018
Delmi Ruiz Hernandez, 4, plays outside of an RV where her family lives in Mountain View, Calif. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The nation's tight housing market has been the subject of plenty of news stories, as stagnant incomes and rapidly rising prices in many cities have made it harder for middle-class residents to afford a mortgage. In several places, it's increasingly difficult for tenants even to find places they can afford to rent.

But one aspect of the current crunch has been less widely reported: the number of children stuck in overcrowded homes.

Nationwide, 14 percent of all children -- more than 10 million kids -- live in overcrowded homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An overcrowded home is defined as one where the number of occupants is greater than the number of total rooms. In overcrowded homes, it is not uncommon for people to double up or triple up in the available bedrooms or for people to convert a living room or kitchen into a sleeping space.

It's an acute problem in many of the nation's biggest cities, especially in booming places like Austin and Washington, D.C. But it's also a stubborn issue in cities such as Long Beach, Calif., where half of all children live in crowded homes, or Baltimore and Cleveland, where the figures vary greatly from year to year.

“Crowding is an often-hidden issue that we need to bring out into the open," New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said in a statement emailed to Governing Wednesday. In New York City, more than one-third of children live in homes that are overcrowded, according to Census data. "This is a problem that hurts children and families.”

As Stringer notes, it's an issue that impacts all family members. But researchers say overcrowding especially affects children.

“The home is a place many children go every night, and especially young children spend even more time at home,” says Dr. Claudia Solari, a scientist at Abt Associates, which conducts social science research.

And with so much time spent in the home, the impacts of overcrowding can have more far-reaching effect even than the condition of the surrounding neighborhood, Solari says.

Children in overcrowded homes lag behind their peers in educational performance and are more prone to withdrawal and fighting in school, says Solari, who has studied the effect of overcrowding on children in Los Angeles. And their parents report the children are in poorer health than those who don’t live in overcrowded housing.

The effects seem to worsen the greater the number of people sharing a home, according to Solari's research.

One aspect she has studied, for example, is the education level of a child's parents, which has long been seen as solid indicator of a child’s future educational attainment. But overcrowding can erase that advantage.

Every additional person per room in a crowded home erases 1.5 years of a parent’s education achievement and, in turn, hinders the future learning outcomes for their children, according to Solari. A parent who earned a high school degree but raises her children in an overcrowded home transfers the same benefit as a parent who dropped out of high school halfway through the 10th grade.

Just as a parent’s education can be a predictor of future outcomes, household income is also used to indicate a child’s trajectory. And overcrowding, regardless of the parent’s actual income, can erase valuable economic benefits, Solari says.

“Having an additional person in a room is like taking away $30,000 in family income," she says.

Parents of children in overcrowded homes also report more health issues with their children, due to both the packing of more people in a smaller space and often because the conditions of crowded housing is substandard.

“Researchers know the exposure to toxic stress has an impact on every indicator of quality of life,” says Charles Rutheiser, senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Civic Sites and Community Change.

American cities have struggled with overcrowded housing for more than a century. Jacob Riis wrote extensively about the impact of overcrowding in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, which detailed life in New York City's tenements in the late 19th century.

But that crisis was driven largely by massive immigration into urban centers that weren't prepared to absorb the new arrivals. While today's overcrowding situation still disproportionately impacts immigrants, it has more to do with economics, according to Rutheiser. It's a combination of a continued tight rental housing market and labor conditions on the low end of the wage spectrum, which are worsening, Rutheiser says.

Since the early 2000s, the number of families that receive federal housing assistance has remained flat, at about 4.7 million. But the number of families earning less than the national median income while paying more than half of their money to rent and household utilities has ballooned from about 5 million to more than 8 million, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The problem, says CBPP and others, has been wages. Inflation-adjusted wages are down from where they were in 2001, while rents have increased 9.7 percent in the same period. Families can’t keep up.

“This is the story of rents outpacing incomes," says Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at CBPP. "What do you do when rents outpace income? You cope in any way you can.”

For some families, that means living in quarters too small for their size, or living with relatives and friends to make ends meet.

Unsurprisingly, the Great Recession exacerbated the issue. In the wake of the downturn, it became harder for potential homebuyers to get credit, which has put greater pressure on the rental market.

In New York, for example, the proportion of severely crowded households shot up 46.4 percent after the recession, with the highest concentrations of severe crowding in the Bronx and Brooklyn, according to a 2015 report commissioned by the city. The report defined "severe crowding" as units with 1.5 or more persons per room.

In response to the broader housing crisis in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio put a rent freeze on rent-controlled units in the city. He pushed hard for the state to implement a living wage. The city also launched its Living in Communities program, which provides rental assistance to low-income families.

But overcrowding has continued to be a problem.

“The time has come to elevate this issue, develop solutions and give all families a fair shot,” Stringer, the comptroller, said this week.

If cities across the country cannot come up with concrete affordable housing solutions, researchers warn the issue could get even worse. In Los Angeles, where Solari has focused her research, 366,000 children live in overcrowded housing.

“If housing affordability problems [in other cities] start to look more like Los Angeles," she says, "this is what we can see nationwide.”