Academic journal article Cityscape

Profiles of Housing and Neighborhood Contexts among Low-Income Families: Links with Children's Well-Being

Academic journal article Cityscape

Profiles of Housing and Neighborhood Contexts among Low-Income Families: Links with Children's Well-Being

Article excerpt


The recent housing crisis focused new attention on housing and neighborhoods as central contexts for children's healthy growth and development. Although various characteristics of housing (for example, quality and homeownership) have received notable scholarly and policy attention in relation to children's development (Newman, 2008), insufficient previous research has addressed the interrelated nature of the housing and neighborhood characteristics that low-income urban families experience. This article investigates the multifaceted nature of low-income families' housing and neighborhood contexts. It adds to existing literature by assessing how multiple aspects of housing and neighborhood characteristics bundle together into distinct patterns, which we term housing and neighborhood "profiles." After establishing the existence of such profiles empirically through advanced person-based analytic techniques in a representative sample of low-income families, we explore the associations of these profiles with children's functioning, adjusting for factors that differentially select families into housing and neighborhood contexts and hence might bias measured associations with child functioning.

This study is based on developmental contextual theory, which argues that proximal contexts, such as homes and neighborhoods, are inextricably linked to human development (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998). We draw more specifically from the developing ecobiodevelopmental (Shonkoff, 2010; Shonkoff and Gamer, 2012) and chaotic systems (Bronfenbrenner and Evans, 2000; Evans and Kim, 2013) frameworks that highlight the harmful role that disorder and instability in children's housing and neighborhood contexts play in limiting their growth and development. These models argue that in comparison to their peers, children who experience more environmental chaos, disorder, stress, and instability in their housing and neighborhood contexts will show greater biological and physiological deficits that will translate into less advanced cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning.

Interrelations Among Central Characteristics of Housing and Neighborhood Contexts

Previous research has identified numerous characteristics of housing-including quality, affordability, ownership, stability, and neighborhood safety-that interrelate in complex ways to define families' housing experiences and that might contribute to children's development (Leventhal and Newman, 2010). Although much past research treated these factors as distinct and independent characteristics, we argue in this article that they are integrally interrelated, which warrants research that directly assesses the complex patterns across multiple housing and neighborhood characteristics.

One of the central aspects defining families' housing contexts is the quality and safety of the physical unit (Newman, 2008). Structural deficiencies, lack of working utilities, and environmental conditions such as rodent or pest infestation, peeling paint, mold, and limited light or fresh air are housing problems that low-income families in the United States experience (Bradman et al., 2005), with poor families being two to three times more likely than economically advantaged families to experience such housing deficiencies (Evans, 2004; Holupka and Newman, 2011). Families might live in structurally deficient housing because they lack economic or social resources to access better housing (Evans, 2004; Holupka and Newman, 2011) or because high housing costs in comparison to family income inhibit their ability to invest in adequate upkeep and maintenance.

Low-income families are particularly likely to live in unaffordable housing; 70 percent of low-income families in 2003 experienced cost burden, defined as paying more than 30 percent of family income for housing costs (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2005). Housing costs are also inextricably tied to the type and stability of housing. …

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