The Affordable Housing Crisis: Residential Mobility of Poor Families and School Mobility of Poor Children

By Crowley, Sheila | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Affordable Housing Crisis: Residential Mobility of Poor Families and School Mobility of Poor Children


Crowley, Sheila, The Journal of Negro Education


Residential mobility that results in changing schools has serious implications for a student's academic success. The lack of housing that the lowest income households can afford contributes to housing instability resulting in frequent moves and, for some families, periods of homelessness. Federal housing policy does not provide resources needed to address the shortage of affordable housing and in some cases directly destabilizes housing for low-income families. While school-based strategies can intervene in reducing school changes for some students, housing-based strategies including major new federal investment in low-income rental housing assistance and rental housing production are required.

The relationship between residential mobility and school performance has been identified as a source of concern for educators, policymakers, and parents (Fowler-Finn, 2001; Holloway, 2000; Rothstein, 2000). Children who move from one domicile to another may also move from one school to another. No matter when this takes place or why, some degree of learning disruption is likely to occur. Children of low-income families are at particular risk of school performance problems related to residential mobility. Low-income families have higher rates of residential mobility than do middle- and upper-income families, and moves by low-income families are less likely to be for positive reasons than are moves by more prosperous families (Scanlon & Devine, 2001; Schachter, 2001a, 2001b).

Americans are a mobile lot, with around 16% of the population changing residences at least once a year (Schachter, 2001b). There are many positive reasons why families move: a parent has a better job opportunity, the family builds or buys a better house, extended families want to live closer to one another, and a new neighborhood is served by a better school. There are also many reasons that are traumatic: divorce, death, domestic violence, eviction (Hartman & Robinson, in press) or foreclosure, forced relocation, or diminished financial resources from loss of employment or public benefits. The role of housing problems and housing policy in frequent family moves that are associated with low-income children's poor school performance is the subject of this article.

The Role of Housing in Child and Family Well-Being

Although tacitly understood by all, most people in the United States take for granted the centrality of good housing to their overall well-being. This is because most Americans are well-housed, meaning they have stable, safe, and decent housing that they can afford and which is located in good neighborhoods of their choosing. If they do move from one home to another, it is by choice.

The absence of good housing makes it possible to understand its importance to the success of other facets of life, such as employment, schooling, childrearing, nutrition, and health. Housing that is overcrowded, in poor repair, or presents health hazards puts enormous stress on the residents. Housing that costs more than the household can afford threatens stability, exposing the household to the possibility of foreclosure or eviction in the worst case and inability to pay for other necessities in the best case.

The importance of safe, decent, and affordable housing to good health is increasingly prominent in public health policy and research (Anderson, Shinn, & St. Charles, 2002). Children in families waiting for housing assistance are exposed to much higher levels of housing-related health hazards than are children whose families are receiving housing assistance (Sharfstein, Sandel, Kahn, & Bauchner, 2001). Stable, affordable housing was found to be the most important factor in explaining differences in rates of infant mortality among children born to extremely poor mothers (Culhane & Elo, 2001).

Housing has important implications for child development. The nature and quality of parenting is influenced by the housing in which the family resides. …

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