Housing Stability and Family Health: Five Things to Know

By Bina Patel Shrimali

A robust and growing body of literature points to the importance of pregnancy and early childhood as time periods that influence health, development, and long-term life chances. Stable, healthy environments during these time periods are critical to ensuring good health later in life, and studies also reveal that stressors during these time periods can even affect the health of the next generation. One stressor continues to dominate research and discussion in the Bay Area: housing affordability. Less attention, however, has been paid to how housing instability during pregnancy and early childhood affects a person’s health over the long-term.

We partnered with the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII), a partnership of the local Bay Area health departments, to explore this topic. BARHII was hearing from their member health departments’ Maternal and Child Health program staff that many families they serve are struggling with the difficult tradeoffs of high housing costs. While this issue brief focuses on housing stability and family health in the San Francisco Bay Area, the information is salient in many communities across the country where housing costs—and housing insecurity—are rising.

Here are five things to know from this research:

  1. Many families with young children in the Bay Area pay too much for housing. Thirty-four percent of families with children under five are housing cost burdened, meaning they pay 30% or more of their income on rent.
  2. Families of color are disproportionately affected. Fifty-seven percent of Black families and 50% of Hispanic families with young children are housing cost burdened. There is good reason to believe that this burden is contributing to longstanding and intractable racial disparities in health.
  3. Many families with children are homeless. Seventeen percent of homeless people are in households with children.
  4. Housing insecurity negatively affects children’s health in various ways. Families with high housing costs spend less on food or medical care and are more likely to live in overcrowded or poor housing conditions in unhealthier neighborhoods. Displacement from high housing costs increases commute times for already busy parents and moves people away from their communities and the social supports essential for healthy pregnancies and early childhood development. Children in families who must move frequently also face disrupted routines and reduced social connection, which can affect their success in school.
  5. There is no silver bullet for solving the housing crisis, but we can point to many promising strategies. Protecting families from displacement, preserving housing options that are affordable, safe and healthy, and producing new housing that prioritizes families’ needs are the essential “3Ps” of housing stability.

Parents often receive advice around reading to their children, ensuring they feed them healthy food, and prioritizing their early schooling and enrichment opportunities. But with housing costs so high, commute times longer, and unsafe or unstable housing conditions, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the best-intentioned parents to heed this advice. In order to best promote the future health and well-being of our population, we must work to ensure safe, affordable housing for families.

For more findings and examples of promising strategies, read Housing Stability and Family Health: An Issue Brief.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.