The Evidence for Addressing Human Needs through Housing

by Maya Brennan

The evidence of the importance of housing for people’s lives is overwhelming. The 90-plus studies now available through How Housing Matters are only a segment of the extensive body of research that shows that housing, indeed, matters. When families cannot find affordable housing, they make tradeoffs that affect medical care, children’s health, child enrichment activities, food security, and retirement savings. Low-income households that want to avoid these damaging tradeoffs have few options.

The evidence is also strong that the neighborhoods where we live matter. Yet, little affordable housing exists in safe neighborhoods that have strong schools. One in three families getting federal rental assistance through public housing lives near schools ranked in the bottom tenth percentile for their state. The situation is not much better for families assisted through vouchers or the Low Income Housing Tax Credit; one in four lives near schools ranked in the bottom tenth. A study of low-income Latinos in the Bronx found that those in public housing had worse cardiovascular health than those with housing vouchers or without any housing assistance, perhaps reflecting the higher rates of poverty, crime, and housing code violations in their neighborhoods.

The How Housing Matters website has helped many people get access to research to make the case that housing affordability, stability, quality, and location all matter for people’s lives. As the connection between housing and people’s outcomes has become clearer, research has also been conducted focused on solutions. That research includes the following:

  • The Family Options Study showed that children in homeless families who received permanent housing subsidies (instead of rapid rehousing or transitional housing) were less likely to move, experienced less economic stress, and had better access to food—with fewer child separations and less exposure to domestic violence—all for a cost comparable to that for standard homeless services.
  • The federal Jobs-Plus demonstration effectively created a culture of work and increased incomes in targeted developments by applying a three-pronged approach involving peer support, on-site employment services, and changes to income-based rent calculations.
  • Ongoing research on the impacts of small-area fair-market rents in the Dallas metro area has found that defining the payment standard for a voucher based on rents in each ZIP Code rather than on an entire metropolitan area allows families to move to higher-quality neighborhoods, as measured by factors that include violent crime, test scores, and poverty rates.
  • Adding affordable housing in affluent suburbs through fair share requirements can improve the mental health of low-income families, strengthen their children’s schooling, and reduce exposure to violent crime, all with no impact on local property values, tax burdens, or crime rates.
  • Residents of the typical affordable housing unit created by inclusionary zoning have a better-ranked neighborhood school than do other low-income families in the jurisdiction.
  • Service-enriched housing can reduce unnecessary use of health care services by older adults, and needs assessments can help property managers add the right services for their population.

And it is not just boutique programs that need scaling up to serve more people. Traditional housing affordability efforts, including housing counseling, preservation initiatives, fair housing enforcement, and the landscape of current housing subsidy programs—all are underresourced and able to support better outcomes for low-income Americans.

How can the nation improve health, child well-being, and equity? How can the nation help families exit generational poverty and become self-sufficient? And how can the nation support the changing needs of an aging population? The evidence is in. At least a piece of the solution for all these issues can be found in housing.