Q&A with Tama Leventhal, PhD, on Housing and Child Development

A number of housing-related factors can influence child development. Tufts University professor Tama Leventhal, PhD, has reviewed existing research and conducted her own studies to determine which characteristics of housing have the most significant effect on child health and well-being. How Housing Matters spoke with Leventhal about her findings and the types of policy changes that can improve child development for low-income families.

How Housing Matters: Tell us about the connection you have found between health and housing quality and crowding, and how these factors affect child development.

Tama Leventhal: One of my first studies to focus on housing as the centerpiece rather than neighborhoods was a review study that Sandra Newman and I conducted. We thought about aspects of housing that are relevant for low-income children and families.

We went back to the existing literature and conducted a comprehensive review of the work that had been done to see what we could glean about the connection between various aspects of housing and children’s development. What we found was that the work that had been done to date pointed to the strongest associations between physical housing quality and children's health and cognition. This work largely encompassed studies of lead and—to a lesser extent—studies on crowding and health outcomes, such as the spread of infectious diseases. This first study primarily examined other people's work and tried to draw out the big picture.

HHM: What else have you found in your work?

Leventhal: My own subsequent work uses existing data from the Three-City Study of Welfare Children and Families to explore how housing is associated with low-income children’s and adolescents’ outcomes, as well as the role that families play. One recent study tried to address some of the shortcomings of existing studies of housing, so instead of examining various housing features independently, we looked at them simultaneously.

We used a representative sample of low-income families and—using more rigorous methods—we found that low-quality housing compromised children's emotional and behavioral wellbeing. That was the key finding. So, when we considered the various features of housing simultaneously, it was the quality of the housing that stood out as being most important.

HHM: In addition to a housing unit’s physical quality, you’ve also found a connection between housing and family stress that affects child development and well-being. Can you talk about that?

Housing likely affects children and families in a variety of ways. In the review paper I discussed, we laid out a broad conceptual model that suggests the family plays a central role in linking housing to children’s development. For example, we focused on family stability—stability in terms of the members, but also the routines that exist for children such as their bed times and meal times. We also proposed that housing conditions may create stress among family members.

Consistent with the literature review, this study suggested that one of the ways in which low-quality housing impairs children's functioning is stress—by compromising a parent’s mental health and creating stress in the parenting role.

HHM: Based on what you found in these pathways between housing and children and the families and children, what can policymakers do to limit the effects of poor housing quality on children?

Leventhal: I have to say as a researcher, I don't like to jump out in front of my findings and make broad housing policy recommendations, because I'm a developmental psychologist by training. So, with that in mind, one of the more direct recommendations that I've suggested is to think about strengthening and enforcing housing code standards. Are the standards that we have in place the relevant ones for child and family wellbeing? Are they enforced regularly?

If we think housing quality matters for families in the private market who own their homes, we have to consider a different set of policies—such as policies that can provide some type of financial assistance or short-term subsidies to help low-income families improve the quality of their housing.

I recognize that schools are very overburdened these days, but we know that schools can serve a broader role, particularly outside of school hours. We could add a few questions to the school intake forms that might screen for housing quality issues, such as structural and maintenance deficiencies in the home; problems with plumbing, noise, electrical, heat and cooling; issues that might make it challenging for a child to do school work. In addition, we could look at expanding school hours so that children can have access to a quiet space to do homework.

HHM: What other housing research are you working on?

Leventhal: We have a new study on teen mothers. In order for teen mothers to receive income support, they have to live in a setting with adult supervision. This policy encourages a teen mother and her child to “double-up”—which can lead to crowding issues. We're trying to understand what the repercussions might be for the teens and their children.

We've also been doing some other work focused on adolescents. One of the studies examines housing problems and neighborhood problems, and how they may be differentially associated with adolescent delinquency and wellbeing. Interestingly, we’ve found that housing quality tends to matter more for adolescent girls and that neighborhood disorder tends to matter more for boys.

And then, my latest research project is a new data collection effort that Sandra Newman and I are co-directing as part of the MacArthur Network on Housing and Families with Children. The overall goal is to push the measurement of housing so we can see how it connects to children's development in more definitive ways. For example, we plan to leave noise meters in the homes to monitor the level of noise. We're getting laser tape measurements to better assess square footage. We're implementing time diaries in which parents will report how different aspects of housing affect the daily interactions and routines of the child.