Applying and Building the Evidence on Housing’s Impacts

by Maya Brennan

A stable, decent home provides more than shelter for its residents, and lacking one can strip people of opportunities for current and future well-being. Yet more than half a million people were homeless in the United States on a single night in January 2016, and another 11.4 million renter households spent more than half their income on housing in 2014. Failing to address the nation’s housing problems has ripple effects on people’s lives and on the strength of our communities and the nation. While the evidence base still needs to grow, sufficient research exists to point to a need for some programs to expand, for others to continue with monitoring or modification, and for new programs to be developed and tested. Housing policymakers and advocates should explore the principles of evidence-based policymaking.

When striving to understand disparities in health, child development, education, and retirement assets, researchers have long applied controls to account for connections with housing and neighborhoods. But these connections were not well understood. Did something about the home or neighborhood affect people and lead to these changes, or was it a reflection of other interconnected factors? What aspects of the home or neighborhood mattered, and why? Additional research, including natural experiments and randomized demonstrations, has increased understanding of the role housing plays (and does not play) in establishing the story of our lives.

When housing costs are too high relative to income, people spend less on current needs (e.g., food and health care) and invest less in the future (e.g., spending on child enrichment and saving for retirement). Substandard housing conditions present immediate health risks through lead poisoning and asthma triggers, with the potential for long-term consequences and spillover effects for society. Neighborhoods also influence life trajectories, especially for children under age 13. And contrary to theory that suggests assistance would substitute for work, people who receive a housing subsidy keep up their work or modestly increase it. In developments that have applied the Jobs-Plus model of multilayered employment supports, earnings have increased community-wide, not just among the people who participate in job support programs.

Housing—through affordability, stability, quality, and location—can be a lever for improving people’s lives. Yet the resources allocated to housing assistance and capital repairs are insufficient to resolve the nation’s affordability and quality problems. Whether through vouchers, public housing, project-based rental assistance, or the preservation and development of housing affordable to a range of incomes, the need for more affordability and a basic assurance of livability is clear. Evidence about the importance of affordability and quality can unite experts in housing, education, health, aging, and more around a call for all Americans to have access to a decent and affordable home. The case would be even stronger with more evidence on both the impacts and the costs.

How to apply the research about the importance of stability and location, especially in a resource-constrained environment, is much less clear and often leads to conflict. The principles of evidence-based policymaking can assist with navigating this conflict. Do decisionmakers have rigorous evidence about what works, its costs, and its benefits, or is this evidence being built? Are current programs being implemented as imagined, and are they being rigorously evaluated? Does rigorous evidence get applied to modify, expand, or eliminate programs? And is there still space for innovation, especially when the new program builds on accepted theories and includes a plan for evaluation?

Through these questions, the housing field can move away from awareness of problems toward proven solutions. With a commitment to evidence-based policymaking, advocates can better coalesce around areas of agreement and compromise, knowing that additional evidence is forthcoming and will effect policy change. When policies are built not simply on anecdotes but on multiple rigorous studies, the housing field will have the greatest chance of withstanding ideological battles and achieving beneficial outcomes for people and communities.