Research Networks

Research Network on How Housing Matters For Children and Families

Focusing on housing as a crucial context for child development and a primary site of family life, this network aimed to understand the impact of housing quality, affordability, stability, and location on families’ and children’s health and well-being.

Supported by MacArthur from 2008 to 2013

About This Network

The house or apartment a child calls home is bound to leave an indelible imprint on his or her life. Whether the home is crowded and chaotic, whether it has peeling paint filled with lead, whether it is nearby parks and supervised play lots, or even whether the kitchen is laid out safely can all affect a child's development. Yet current policy rarely focuses on housing's impacts on children.

Until this network, research developed theories for why housing matters, but there was little evidence of the ways in which children’s lives are improved because of better housing. We do not yet know for certain, for example, whether the safety of the home directly improves a child’s health or cognitive ability, or, more indirectly, whether children are affected because inadequate housing creates parental stress resulting in harsh or punitive parenting. As a result of our inability to definitively link specific housing characteristics to child outcomes, housing is rarely considered in policy decisions about child welfare.

The Research Network on How Housing Matters for Families and Children hoped to change that. Through a signature study of 2,650 families and 3,450 children in four cities (Seattle, Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland), the Network gained a more direct understanding of how housing makes families stronger and improves outcomes for children. The signature study spanned 3.5 years, with three waves of data collection. 

The Network’s research was part of the MacArthur Foundation’s larger How Housing Matters to Families and Communities research initiative, which included 42 grants competitively awarded since 2008. In addition to MacArthur, the Network had the support of several other foundations and government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Network is Guided by Five Questions:

How does housing affect children?
Current measures of housing and housing quality—water damage or steel versus wooden beams, for example—have little to do with child development. To redirect the focus to children, the Network developed and tested child-centric housing measures such as crowding, noise, physical adequacy, social interaction, safety, and stability. Crowding and noise, for example, may be very important for child development because if a home is crowded and chaotic, a child may be less likely to learn self-regulation, considered by experts to be a very important life skill. The child may also be unable to concentrate, which can affect interpersonal relationships and school performance.

What are the joint effects of housing, family, neighborhood, and school factors?
The Network examined housing as part of a complex web of influences on children's lives. While theories abound about the interconnected effects of schools, family, and neighborhoods on children, housing’s impact is often omitted from such discussions.  As a result, there is no unified theory of the joint contextual effects of a child’s environment on his or her well-being.

What are the trade-offs that families face in housing decisions and how do these trade-offs affect children?
To better understand families’ housing needs—and thus design better housing policy—the Network explored the trade-offs and decisions families make about housing. What factors do parents weigh when considering where to live? Do they pay more for housing to be near a good school? Do parents put neighborhood safety above affordability? What other factors color their decisions about where to live? Insights such as these can help policymakers more cost-effectively target policy.  

How does housing and its effects on children vary by race-ethnicity, especially where Latino families are concerned?
Given the growing population of Latinos in the United States, the Network hoped to inject Latinos more centrally into housing studies and discussions. We know, for example, that Latino families tend to live in more crowded housing and use government housing services less. Latino families are larger and more stable, with more adults in smaller homes. They also tend to live in less segregated neighborhoods than blacks or whites. The Network examined these and other factors in an effort to gain a more complete understanding of the distinctions and unique housing factors of different racial-ethnic groups.

How can housing research inform policy?
Knowing whether, and how, housing affects children’s life chances can help policymakers direct scarce funding more efficiently and effectively.  The Network’s findings aim to inform policy both in the short- and long-term and help policymakers rethink housing in the context of how child welfare services are currently designed and coordinated across federal agencies responsible for housing, health, family life, income, community resources, and educational quality. In addition, findings are be relevant to state and local governments and to private nonprofits developing and implementing programs related to children’s well-being.

Network Chairs

Tama Leventhal
Assistant Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University


Sandra J. Newman 
Professor of Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies

Network Members

Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, PhD
The Heller School for Social Policy and Management
Brandeis University

Stefanie DeLuca, PhD
Department of Sociology
Johns Hopkins University

Greg Duncan, PhD
University of California, Irvine

Kathryn Edin, PhD
Department of Sociology
Princeton University

Jens Ludwig, PhD
The Irving B. Harris School of Public Policy
University of Chicago

Jeffrey Lubell, JD
Principal Associate
Abt Associates

Sandra Newman, PhD
Center on Housing, Neighborhoods and Communities
Johns Hopkins University

Mary Pattillo, PhD
Departments of Sociology and African American Studies, and Institute for Policy Research
Northwestern University

Erika Poethig, MPP 
Institute Fellow and Director of Urban Policy Initiatives
The Urban Institute

Stephen Raudenbush, PhD
Department of Sociology
University of Chicago

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