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American Housing Survey Reveals Rise in Doubled-Up Households During Recession

A recent analysis of the American Housing Survey (AHS) by Econometrica found that from 2003 to 2009, the rate of new household formation declined and the number of “doubled-up” households increased. Doubled-up households are defined as having one or more adults in addition to the head of household and spouse or partner, such as an adult child living at home, two related or unrelated families residing together, or a parent living with an adult child. These doubled-up households are “a disguised form of stress in the nation’s housing markets,” according to Kurt G. Usowski, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for policy development. Although doubling up can help adults and families avoid severe housing needs such as high cost burdens or substandard housing, the decision to double up suggests that these households are experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing, housing vulnerability.

Characteristics of Doubled-Up Households

The most common doubled-up households have adult children living at home. Approximately half of the doubled-up households in each of the four surveys conducted between 2003 and 2009 had adult children over age 21, about 50 percent of whom were between the ages of 21 and 25 years. During this period, the number of households with adult children aged 18 to 29 increased by 12.9 percent (24.6% among renter households alone). Another significant set of doubled-up households have additional related or unrelated subfamilies living in the household. The number of households with unrelated subfamilies increased by 216 percent between 2003 and 2009, to more than 600,000.

Overall, older households were more likely to be doubled up than younger ones. Black, Hispanic, and other nonwhite households were more likely to be doubled up than were white households, and households with a foreign-born head were more likely to be doubled compared to those with a native-born head. Geographically, doubled-up households were concentrated in central cities and other urban areas. Housing quality did not differ between doubled-up and nondoubled households; for the most part, doubling up did not cause overcrowding, perhaps because nearly 70 percent of doubled-up households lived in single-family detached homes.

Table 1. Composition of Doubled-Up Households, 2003–2009 (in thousands)

  2003 2005 2007 2009
Total households 105,842 108,871 110,692 111,806
Households with a single adult child 18 and older 15,699 16,026 16,667 17,373
Households with more than one family 2,737 2,915 3,112 3,354
     Related 2,541 2,641 2,618 2,733
     Unrelated 196 274 494 621

The Role of the Recession

Consistent with previous investigations by the U.S. Census Bureau using the Current Population Survey, the study found that the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession influenced the rise in doubled-up households.

During the period spanning the financial crisis and recession, from 2005 to 2009, 79.1 percent of doubled-up households had an adult child. The researchers note that an increase in the doubling up of adult children aged 26 to 30 in 2009 suggests that they had difficulty finding a job. Overall, the percentage of doubled-up adult children with jobs dropped approximately 3 percent in 2009 compared with the previous three surveys.

The researchers noted that, among doubled-up households with unrelated subfamilies, the percentages of non-Hispanic families, younger families (especially those aged 26 to 35), and better-educated households all increased, which suggests that economic hardship became an important cause of unrelated families living together during this period.

A 2011 AHS Update

The study’s authors caution against directly comparing the surveys conducted from 2003 to 2009 with the 2011 AHS. Because the benchmarks used for the 2011 survey were updated based on the 2010 decennial census, any changes observed between these data sets could be attributed to the change of benchmarks, rather than actual changes in the number of doubled-up households. Keeping this limitation in mind, however, the numbers of doubled-up households appeared to remain high. The 2011 AHS showed nearly 25 million people other than a spouse or children living with other relatives, 11.5 million living with nonrelatives, and 3.6 million households containing more than one family, 541,000 of which were unrelated subfamilies.

Future Research

The report suggests that further investigation could more fully examine the characteristics of doubled-up families. Continuing research can also follow household composition trends through the period of economic recovery, looking especially for evidence of “undoubling.” Finally, the study notes that future research on doubled-up households will be aided by new portions of the 2013 AHS that will be devoted to the topic.