When It Comes to Children, Housing & Neighborhood Characteristics Are Linked

When It Comes to Children, Housing & Neighborhood Characteristics Are Linked
Rebekah Levine Coley; Melissa Kull; Tama Leventhal; Alicia Doyle Lynch
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The housing crisis and the knowledge that low-income families are most likely to be cost-burdened when it comes to housing has inspired increased research on the impact of housing and neighborhoods on children’s growth and development. A new report by researchers from Tufts University and Boston College published in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Cityscape builds upon their  prior work regarding how housing characteristics of low-income families affect children. Using the same dataset on children in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, this related study expands the researcher's analysis from considering housing characteristics to also considering the impact of neighborhood characteristics on children. Researchers created profiles of low-income urban families’ housing and neighborhood features to better illustrate the housing characteristics experienced by economically disadvantaged urban families.  The researchers identified four contexts in which low-income urban families tend to reside, with distinct patterns of housing cost, housing quality problems (pest control issues, failing appliance, limited utilities, etc.), neighborhood disorder, residential instability, and homeownership. The four profiles are summarized as follows:

  • Profile 1 – High cost, high housing problems and neighborhood disorder, moderate residential instability and high private rentals.
  • Profile 2 – High cost, low housing problems and neighborhood disorder, moderate residential instability and prevalent owned homes and private rentals.
  • Profile 3 – Low cost, high housing problems and neighborhood disorder, residential instability and subsidized housing.
  • Profile 4 – Low cost, low housing problems and neighborhood disorder, high residential instability and high subsidized housing.

Although maternal, family and broader community characteristics varied across all four profiles, individual profiles showed unique associations with children’s core cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills. The results support the idea that families’ housing and neighborhood characteristics should be analyzed holistically rather than as individual components that are interrelated. Otherwise, the combined effects of housing and neighborhood characteristics on children’s development are likely to be misread.

Major findings:

  • The year prior to the study, 1 out of every 4 families surveyed moved. Approximately half of families in the study shifted profile membership during the study.
  • Three-quarters of the families surveyed lived in rented homes, including nearly half of the total sample who lived in government-assisted rental units. The remaining quarter lived in owned homes.
  • Living with low housing problems and in neighborhoods with low disorder is associated with enhanced child functioning, especially in owned homes—even when housing consumes a major portion of family income. These characteristics, which define Profile 2, are also associated with increased reading skills and fewer behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Living in high-quality government-assisted housing in neighborhoods with low disorder is not associated with enhanced child functioning, even when housing costs are notably lower.


  • The key to better understanding the housing experiences of low-income families is identifying how housing and neighborhood factors are linked together in particular patterns.
  • Personal and family characteristics have the ability to influence housing preferences, as well as housing opportunities and constraints. They may also affect maintenance or financial behaviors that influence housing quality and costs.
  • Transitions between profiles may affect and reflect instability in other areas (i.e. frequent job transition, income volatility, etc.) of low-income families. This instability provides opportunities for policies that increase stability and regularity in children’s lives.
  • Housing policies that do not recognize the synergistic nature of low-income housing and neighborhoods’ features may fail to manifest the desired outcome of promoting children’s health and well-being.