Housing: Why Educators, Health Professionals, and Those Focused on Economic Mobility Should Care About It

November 16, 2017 Article How Housing Matters Housing
Housing summary report

Lessons Learned from MacArthur's Investment in Housing Research

When cities strive to improve the lives of their residents, they often focus on issues such as schools, parks, jobs, or, health. Yet often overlooked is something equally fundamental. Trace the lineage of many social welfare issues today, and you will likely uncover a history of substandard, unaffordable housing. As research increasingly shows, housing that is safe and affordable and in a strong and thriving neighborhood is a launching pad to upward mobility for families.

For more than a decade, MacArthur has supported research on the role of housing as a platform for opportunity among families. As the following summary of findings from more than 20 studies shows, housing shapes our lives in critical and long-lasting ways. Through this and others' work, our understanding has expanded and continues to grow, providing greater nuance and insight into the specific pathways through which housing makes a difference in people's lives and in communities. These pathways include housing stability, affordability, quality, and location.

The findings are organized for audiences who regularly see the direct impact of poor-quality, unaffordable housing but who at the same time may not realize housing's role in those outcomes: educators, health professionals, and economic development experts.

Why Educators Should Care About Housing

Safe, stable, and affordable housing during childhood sets the stage for later success in school. Children are profoundly affected by their environments during key developmental stages. Chaos in their neighborhood, frequent moves, exposure to pollutants, and unhealthy conditions inside the home all leave a deep and lasting imprint. When housing consumes too much of a household's budget, kids may not have enough nutritious food to eat to be ready to learn. Teachers see the ramifications of these conditions all too clearly in the classroom. 

As MacArthur-supported research shows:   

Why Health Care Professionals Should Care About Housing

It is no coincidence that both neighborhood and health disparities are stark in the United States. It is widely cited that one's ZIP code is as important as one's genetic code in determining health status or life expectancy.  The disparities are linked because where you live offers access to those things that make you healthy or unhealthy, from housing without lead or asthma triggers to grocery stores with fresh vegetables, to parks and sidewalks, and access to jobs. Physicians, nurses, and public health experts recognize this, and increasingly they are doing more to ensure that the residents they serve live in homes and neighborhoods that promote their health and well-being.

As MacArthur-supported research shows:

Why Those Focused on Ensuring Greater Economic Security and Mobility Should Care About Housing

Housing is a launching pad to successful lives. High-quality housing in strong neighborhoods positions residents to capitalize on the opportunities before them. And investing in communities reaps benefits beyond the particular neighborhood in lower social, health, and economic costs city and region-wide. Because of this, cities nationwide are working to reverse entrenched poverty and provide the needed opportunities for all residents in a city. The findings below demonstrate the strong connection between housing, neighborhood, and upward mobility.

MacArthur Foundation-supported research shows:  

  • Improving neighborhood social cohesion and access to jobs, and reducing environmental hazards have a strong effect on health, earnings, and well-being.
  • Housing affordability and stability encourage work. Families using housing vouchers were working more consistently after five years than similar low-income families without vouchers.
  • But, policies that focus on moving families to better neighborhoods are not enough to address every problem related to poverty. Families need additional supports if they are to overcome their circumstances.
  • Siblings who lived in public housing as teenagers fared better than their siblings who had spent less time in public housing. They earned more as young adults and were less likely to be incarcerated. More room in family budgets to invest in children may be one reason for the better results.
  • Improving housing stability for children has long-term benefits. Moving three or more times in childhood—and especially between ages six and ten—lowered later earnings by nearly 52 percent.
  • In Milwaukee, 16 households are evicted every day. Poor, black women are especially vulnerable. Evictions disrupt children's schooling and perpetuate economic disadvantage in cities.
  • Racial segregation and a tight rental market constrain housing choice for low-income families and may be one reason that voucher holders live nearer lower-performing schools.
  • Inclusionary zoning policies are effective in expanding access to more economically diverse neighborhoods and better performing schools, though IZ is currently only a small slice of the affordable housing pie.
  • For low-income seniors, reverse mortgages can be a lifeline. The most effective strategy to reduce default rates is escrowing funds for property tax and insurance payments for borrowers with low FICO scores.

These findings underscore the need to invest in healthy, affordable housing for all Americans. Opportunities are shaped by an individual's housing, neighborhood, and environment. Policy that addresses housing and neighborhood's role in creating and sustaining opportunities—or its opposite, disadvantage—may therefore be one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and promote upward economic mobility in America.