On: August 4, 2021

When eviction moratoriums and rent relief programs end, many families will be on the move. Research says that moving too often and unstable housing is extremely hard on kids

The nation’s eviction moratorium, set to expire in July, was extended at the last minute. But when it does end, thousands of families will be in a hard spot when their back rent comes due. Many will be evicted outright. To make matters worse, finding a new apartment with an eviction or late-payment record will make finding a place even more difficult.

In Boston, where the Family Health Project operates, evictions were banned from March to October 2020 (and longer in Cambridge and Somerville). But in November when the moratorium ceased, evictions shot up, and there have been more than 3,000 eviction filings as of July this year, according to the Eviction Lab.

Experts warn that more evictions are on the horizon across the country. Twice as many families say they’re behind on rent today than in 2017, according to Governing, with more than 5.8 million renters, or 14 percent, behind on rent as of June 2021.

Housing stability is critical to children’s health and social-emotional well-being. Research has found a strong link between moving frequently and poorer outcomes for kids, with long-term costs for society.

“We call it paying your freedom rent,” Scott said.

Moving too often can harm children

Low-income families are often in a battle between their low wages and the cost of living. Up to 43 percent of renters earning $15,000-$30,000 a year (or about $10-$15/hour) were paying more than half their income for rent in 2018. For those earning less than $15,000, the number jumps to 72 percent. For these families, a rent increase often means another move.

Latisha Lacey, a single mother of two in Chicago who earned about $35,000 a year, had moved roughly every two years over the course of a decade, fleeing bad landlords, rats and bug infestations, and at a pediatrician’s recommendation, dangerous lead levels. In 2015, her toddler’s lead levels were off the charts, and so she packed up and moved again, she told Build Healthy Places’ Crosswalk magazine.

Moving often in childhood can hurt school performance, social skills, and lead to behavioral problems.

Parents like Lacey and the mothers in our Family Health Program in Lynn, Mass., often deal with chaos and instability, and their children feel it. The disruptions interrupt critical routines and stability at a time in life when they matter dearly. A study by Rebekah Levine Coley and colleagues at Boston College found that moving often in childhood can hurt school performance, social skills, and behavior, and the harms accumulate with every move. For teens and middle-schoolers, moving frequently means also changing schools, which the study found leads to lower grades and more behavioral problems, though the effects fade with time.

Housing quality and overcrowding also harm kids

Homes that are in bad shape, with broken windows, poor heating, rodents, and other conditions, are linked to more depression, anxiety, and overall mental health among adults and children living there. Crowding—which is likely to increase with evictions as families double up—can also affect mental health, for children in particular. Surprisingly, even warm, sensitive parenting did not protect children. The chaos from unstable housing has also been found to contribute to poorer health developmental delays among children.

Even infants feel the stress

Without doubt, the most traumatic experience is homelessness, which some evictions will lead to. A study by University of Massachusetts researchers found that even infants register the stress of homelessness, with higher rates of health problems and hospital admissions by age 1 than other children living in poverty, suggesting that the negative effects go beyond the general effects of poverty.

By age 3, they were also more likely to have respiratory problems, allergic reactions, asthma, nutritional deficiencies and a host of other issues. Many of these issues persisted through at least age 6 (when the study stopped tracking them).

Hospitals invest in housing

All of these connections between stable housing and children’s health are one reason health systems are investing in affordable housing. Intermountain Health in Utah just created a housing preservation fund to build and preserve more affordable housing in that state as housing pressures mount. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital invested $11 million over five years to improve housing in the Avondale neighborhood there in an effort to both better serve its patients and cut costs. In Avondale, only about half of children are considered “on track” for kindergarten, and life expectancy at least 20 years shorter than in mostly white neighborhoods nearby. Several other hospitals have joined the movement.

A more stable income can help families stay in their homes

Housing instability starts with a family’s ability to pay rent or a mortgage. Families tend to put rent first on the list of bills to pay, even at the expense of things like school supplies or health care checkups. It’s another reason a guaranteed income like we’re providing to mothers in Lynn, Mass., is so critical.

Not only does the extra $400 per month that we provide them help make ends meet, but it makes their incomes more predictable and less volatile, which makes long-term planning easier. Incomes in the U.S. have become extremely volatile. The percentage of lower-income workers who say they can predict their income all or most months declined by nearly 4 percentage points between 2018 and 2019.

We’re beginning to hear from our families just how valuable this additional money is (more on that later), and given the research, we fully expect that their children’s health will be better for it. In the meantime, we’re also launching a second pilot program in Boston in late August so stay tuned.