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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