Skip to main content

Housing and Neighborhood Contexts Affect Children’s Outcomes

Featured Article
HUD USER Home > PD&R Edge Home > Featured Article

Housing and Neighborhood Contexts Affect Children’s Outcomes

Image displaying HUD Secretary Julián Castro speaking at a podium bearing the HUD logo, with the American flag and a HUD flag behind him. To the right of the podium, a table with four seated individuals, including Assistant Secretary of PD&R Katherine O’Regan and three panelists, is visible, and a backdrop with the HUD and PD&R logos is shown in the background.
HUD Secretary Julián Castro delivers his remarks at PD&R’s Quarterly Update focusing on the effects of housing and neighborhood on children. He is joined on stage by Assistant Secretary of PD&R Katherine O’Regan, and panelists Jean-Claude Brizard, Lauren Smith, and Sandra Newman.

“In terms of children,” says HUD Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research (PD&R) Katherine O’Regan, “there is considerable evidence that a wide range of outcomes are closely aligned with housing and neighborhood quality, among them physical health, behavioral and emotional welfare, school achievement, and economic opportunity.” This evidence, as well as related research and policy challenges, were addressed at PD&R’s most recent quarterly update. Sandra Newman, professor of policy studies at Johns Hopkins University; Lauren Smith, senior strategic advisor at the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality; and Jean-Claude Brizard, president of the UpSpring Education Group, joined O’Regan in discussing the implications of housing and neighborhood contexts for children’s cognitive development and health and education outcomes.

Housing and Neighborhood Quality Matter

Research shows that the physical quality of housing affects children’s well-being. The presence of mold in the home, for example, can contribute to cases of asthma, and lead paint can lead to cognitive deficiencies. Despite the dramatic decline in physically inadequate homes since the 1970s, in 2011 approximately 6 percent of households with children under 17 still lived in housing with moderate to severe physical problems. Physical quality, explains Newman in framing the issue, is one aspect of the “housing bundle” — the collection of attributes associated with a physical dwelling including affordability, fit between the size of the household and the size of the unit (crowding), school quality, crime rates, neighbors (demographics and behavior), land use policies, and property taxes. Newman adds that housing stability is an important aspect of housing that can affect children’s well-being.

These housing and neighborhood attributes affect a number of outcomes such as physical, emotional, and mental health; family, social, and physical environment; economic circumstances; and cognitive performance. The relationships between housing and neighborhood characteristics and outcomes can be direct, as in the effect of lead paint on cognitive performance; indirect, as when unaffordability increases parental stress, which in turn affects child welfare; or interactive, as in the effects of neighborhood poverty on mental health, which differ by gender. Newman notes that the links among the various aspects and their relationships are not simple; they are complex and multifaceted. Of the many outcomes affected by housing and neighborhoods, the panel focused on cognitive performance, health, and educational achievement.

Affordability and Cognitive Performance

New research on housing affordability by Newman and Scott Holupka, finds that, controlling for other factors, children in households that spend approximately 30 percent of their income on housing demonstrate the best cognitive performance. Using survey data on consumer expenditures to investigate possible mechanisms for this connection, Newman and Holupka find that households spending about 30 percent of their income on housing spent more of their remaining income on child enrichment than did other households. This insight is especially relevant considering that poor children are twice as likely to be in households that experience severe unaffordability (paying well over 30% of their income on housing) today as they were during the 1970s. The study suggests that attention must also be given to the problem of lower-income families paying too little for housing, which may result in the family living in low-quality housing. Newman notes that this study, like many similar studies, is prone to selection bias. In other words, it could be that the people who spend 30 percent of their income on housing are different in some unknown ways than those who spend either more or less.

Neighborhood Contexts for Healthy Choices

In addition to the health impacts of various housing conditions and the dangers posed by housing instability, such as homelessness, Smith notes the ways that neighborhood attributes affect children’s physical, mental, and emotional health. Home and neighborhood characteristics influence residents’ health through such problems as food deserts, presence of environmental toxins, or pollution; lack of access to health care and quality education; and exposure to violence. Neighborhoods are the context in which individuals make choices about food; if, for example, a neighborhood has no supermarket but several fast food restaurants, its residents are less likely to make healthy food choices. Considerable racial and economic disparities exist in the areas of food insecurity and access to healthy food. Minority neighborhoods tend to have a higher density of fast food restaurants, and low-income and minority neighborhoods are less likely to have a supermarket with abundant healthy food options. The proportion of overweight or obese children in a neighborhood, not surprisingly, is associated with the median income of the neighborhood.

Educational Outcomes

The neighborhood one lives in — and the quality of the schools within that neighborhood — largely determines families’ access to quality schools. Even in jurisdictions that offer citywide school choice, children are likely to attend a school in their neighborhood. Lack of access to affordable transportation, for example, can limit one’s ability to attend a high-quality school outside the neighborhood. Paralleling the broader debates about neighborhood revitalization and mobility, improving access to high-quality schools requires both improving every school and improving the ability of students and parents to choose higher-quality schools. In either case, says Brizard, stability is valuable because it allows students to develop a sense of belonging in a school and a secure attachment to teachers and other adults, both of which are critical for developing the nonacademic skills and qualities that build resilience and strengthens students’ ability to sustain academic success.

Brizard argues that tackling complex challenges calls for comprehensive, system wide, integrated solutions. “It takes a city, not just a school district,” to achieve the best educational outcomes for children, meaning coordinated public investments in housing, health and education. Brizard points out that municipal leaders such as mayors, city managers, and councils need to function as “convener[s]-in-chief,” looking for beneficial partnerships and bringing key leaders together.

Research and Policy Challenges

A number of challenges confront researchers as they continue to explore the links among housing, neighborhoods, and health and social outcomes. Newman points to a lack of longitudinal housing or child and family data, a lack of tested measures related to child well-being, and the difficulty of establishing causality. The unexpected results of the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing (MTO) demonstration, which showed beneficial effects in some areas but not in others, remain a puzzle for researchers. Digging deeper into MTO, however, researchers have provided some insight into more nuanced ways of thinking about mobility, severity of neighborhood distress, and buffers or mitigating factors that might have influenced outcomes for MTO households.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro joined the program, highlighting the potential for housing to be a platform for opportunity by “helping ensure that young people have better access to good education, and that adults who are working age have access to job training and jobs.” He noted that we have learned from research “the importance of taking a holistic approach” and stressed the value of research in informing HUD’s policy decisions and applying it to “the institutional leverage that we have to help people make good choices in life….” The imperative, said Castro is “to put research into practice so that we make positive change happen in communities across the United States.” At the end of the day, the Secretary reminded the audience, the ultimate measure of how successful HUD has been will rest with the answer to one question: “How much more opportunity did we create in the lives of people we serve?”

O’Regan summed up the ongoing policy challenge: “When we [through HUD housing assistance programs] are achieving affordable housing, we may not also always be achieving the entire context that we aim for.” Achieving affordability in the desired context of favorable neighborhood attributes requires both developing under-resourced neighborhoods and helping households choose to relocate to low-poverty, amenity-rich neighborhoods. The hope is that research can help HUD improve both place-based and mobility-oriented policies by, among other things, gaining a greater understanding of what factors help buffer against the potentially negative effects of moving and what factors might contribute to different, and better, outcomes for families and children.

For more on the connection between housing and neighborhood quality and children’s health, please see the Fall 2014 issue of Evidence Matters.


Published Date: November 17, 2014

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.