The New Housing Normal for Low-Income Families

Longstanding Affordability Crisis Hurts Children and Adults

Low-income families began experiencing a new normal on housing over the last several years defined by shared housing and frequent moves. These changes are rooted in a longstanding housing affordability crisis that has hurt many American children and adults.

The American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010, H.R. 4213, which was passed by the House and is now being considered by the Senate, could help address the issue. The legislation would capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund, which is designed to build, preserve, and rehabilitate affordable housing. This would help fix a pre-existing problem that the recession has only exacerbated.

It’s common today to find a mother raising her children in her parents’ home. Some may be staying with other relatives (grandparents, cousins, aunts, or uncles), friends, intimate partners, or acquaintances. These shared housing situations are often referred to as being “doubled-up,” and in some circumstances they’re considered a form of homelessness due to their high levels of instability. The doubled-up population also has also been growing steadily according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In 2008 there was an 8.5 percent increase in the number of people in families who were sharing the housing of others due to economic hardship compared to 2005.

These living situations are in many instances not a matter of choice, but a matter of no other choice. They reflect an affordable housing crisis that has many Americans paying far too much to keep a roof over their heads—51 percent of low-income renters and 43 percent of low-income homeowners in 2007 spent more than half their income on housing. The economic downturn certainly doesn’t help matters. Elevated rates of unemployment, long-term unemployment, and underemployment are greatly harming these families as many find themselves unable to keep up with mortgage and rent payments.

Those at risk of losing their housing and doubling-up include:

  • Those affected by faulty loan products, who have been removed from their homes via foreclosures while also losing what savings were invested in the home.
  • Families who have a history of housing stability but who are one financial disaster—losing a steady job or facing drastic reductions in work hours—away from going over the edge.
  • Those who regularly lack housing stability in good economic times and bad. For these families—which are disproportionately headed by single mothers—frequent evictions, doubling up, and/or living in homeless shelters are a way of life.

So what’s the problem with sharing housing? After all, couldn’t it lead to increased emotional and financial support from family and friends, or perhaps more readily available child care? The implications for family dynamics and childrearing are certainly interesting, if not a bit complicated. And for some families it is certainly not a bad situation. But for far too many that’s not the case, which emphasizes the need for a capitalized National Housing Trust Fund.

Of concern is the fact that too many doubled-up families experience the following negatives:

  • Overcrowding. A host family may feel obliged to help too many people, resulting in two, three, or four different families sharing a few rooms under one roof. And with too many people can come tension and stress. It’s also unhealthy as germs can easily spread in small enclosed places holding too many people. Even worse, the host family could find themselves running afoul of housing codes and housing assistance program rules that could lead to their eviction.
  • Mobility. Doubled-up living situations often fail to last. Families wear out their welcome and are asked to move on, perhaps to someone else’s home. Often, these are only meant to be temporary living situations. And moving from home to home could disrupt transportation routes to and from work or school. Children may have to transfer schools, disrupting their education and that of their peers.
  • Safety concerns. Mothers who can’t afford housing may feel that they have to live with intimate partners or family members who threaten their safety or that of their children.

It is also important to note that although most low-income families with children who lose their homes end up living with others, that isn’t always the case. Those with the least amount of resources and social networks to draw on find themselves living in homeless shelters, or possibly worse, in vehicles, campgrounds, or other places not meant for habitation.

Data collection on this topic is on a time delay, which affects assessments of the recession’s impact. But we do know that far too many (473,541 people in families) were accessing homeless shelters in 2007, the year in which the recession began, and cities have reported increases in demand for services since that time.

Many of the affected family members unfortunately have been children—the nation’s schools identified 800,000 homeless children and youth (sheltered, doubled-up, and other homeless situations) during the 2007-08 school year. This represented a 17 percent increase over the previous year and partly reflects the recession’s effect. Since many homeless children don’t come to the attention of educators, this figure also likely undercounts the extent of the problem.

The National Housing Trust Fund could help families find more affordable housing and is included in The American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010, on which Congress is working toward final passage. The act would provide a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing that is not subject to the annual appropriations process—largely for the production and rehabilitation of rental housing, but a limited amount could be applied to homeownership assistance.

This is good policy because a lack of housing affordability for families with children is a lose-lose situation. Homelessness costs society—the average cost of emergency shelter services is $1,255 per month, but other price tags are tied to health care, education services, and the increased likelihood of foster care involvement. The National Housing Trust Fund would help address such costs while also creating more jobs in construction, an industry hit hard by the recession

More importantly, though, housing instability costs children. It’s associated with a higher likelihood of children experiencing health problems that include respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, and ear infections. What’s more, it causes include poor nutrition and overcrowded living situations that help spread illness and deprive children of sleep due to the noise of having too many people in small spaces.

Homeless children also experience greater academic difficulties and are more likely to have lower test scores, repeat a grade, and have learning disabilities and developmental delays. Many of these difficulties are rooted in frequent school transfers and missed school days that come with moving from place to place and experiencing health problems.

In sum, the Housing Trust Fund has great potential to help many American families make ends meet and achieve positive outcomes for their children, along with many other useful provisions of H.R. 4213.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at American Progress.