Factors Influencing Housing Decisions Among Low-Income Families

Posted October 27, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Family on porch of house in Atlanta

How do families with children — and low-income families, in particular — end up living where they do? Sociologists Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins University and Christine Jang-Trettien of Princeton University set out to answer this very question.

Their research, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other funders, covers 17 years of field work. It reviewed eight studies involving nearly 1,200 households in five U.S. cities (Baltimore; Mobile, Alabama; Dallas; Cleveland; and Seattle). These studies collected quantitative and qualitative data in a mixed-methods approach, with narrative interviews serving as the cornerstone of each effort.

Examinations of urban inequality have historically explored the role of high-poverty neighborhoods in shaping behaviors and outcomes. These same studies have often overlooked how inherent inequities may shape the process of finding a new home. DeLuca and Jang-Trettien’s work aims to fill in this very gap. Their findings may help inform policy moves designed to expand opportunities for residential choice in meaninful ways and — in doing so — also reduce racial and economic inequities.

Decisions about housing

This research — published in City & Community, a journal of the American Sociological Association — considers four main residential decisions that families face. These are: 1) whether to move; 2) where to move; 3) whether to send children to school in the neighborhood; and 4) whether to rent or own a home.

The interviews in each study reveal a complex, nuanced logic — one that is far different from the dismissive assumptions about why and how people remain in high-poverty neighborhoods.

DeLuca and Jang-Trettien identified several sharerd experiences among the low-income families surveyed. These are:

  1. Unexpected moves — what DeLuca and Jang-Trettien call “reactive mobility” — were far more prevalent than the planned and deliberate moves that are the norm for higher-income households. Low-income families, when asked how they picked their neighborhood, commonly responded by describing what pushed them out of their last housing unit — with deterioration of their current housing, housing policy, neighborhood violence and landlord decisions as the leading causes.
  2. As a result of reactive moving, families had less time to search for housing. Low-income parents, making residential choices under duress, prioritized short-term survival solutions to avoid worst-case scenarios rather than deliberately aiming for the neighborhoods that best suited their needs.
  3. These shocks, constraints and shorter time frames led parents to discount important aspects of neighborhood and school quality during the housing search process. They focused on securing shelter in a unit that was close to work and childcare.
  4. Policies have a significant effect on some housing decisions. Some housing policies intended to increase residential options actually limited choices, while innovative policies with more generous sources of support increased neighborhood options and broadened the way parents thought about residential and school choice.

“These interviews show the profound constraints that families with few resources face when making critical decisions about where their children will grow up,” said Cynthia Guy, vice president of Research, Evaluation, Evidence and Data at the Foundation. “These families also are giving us important insights about how housing policy can be designed to give them more choices and more time to find affordable housing that meets their needs.”

DeLuca and Jang-Trettien acknowledge the risk of their work’s heavy reliance on interview data — that asking about people’s motivations and rationales might be seen as “blaming the victim” when their decisions seem to keep better living conditions perpetually out of reach. But the value of the in-depth narrative interview, the researchers argue, is that it elevates people’s own experiences and voices. “Rather than viewing [firsthand] accounts as potentially shaming or disempowering, we should consider what people say to be expert knowledge from which we can learn what their lives are actually like, and how to craft better theories and better policies.”

Learn more about the Foundation’s work to preserve housing security for young people and families

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