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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013

Housing Problems

Inadequate, crowded, or too costly housing can pose serious problems to children's physical, psychological, and material well-being.69, 70 Housing cost burdens, especially at high levels, are a risk factor for negative outcomes for children, including homelessness, overcrowding, poor nutrition, frequent moving, and lack of supervision while parents are at work.71, 72 The percentage of households with children that report that they are living in physically inadequate,73 crowded, or costly housing provides insight into the impact that the post-recessionary economy and housing markets have on housing choices and childrens' well-being.

Indicator Phy5: Percentage of households with children ages 0–17 that reported housing problems by type of problem, selected years 1978–2011
Percentage of households with children ages 0–17 that reported housing problems by type of problem, selected years 1978–2011

NOTE: Data are available for 1978, 1983, 1989, and biennially since 1993. All data are weighted using the decennial Census that preceded the date of their collection.

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Housing Survey. Tabulated by Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • In 2011, some 46 percent of U.S. households (both owners and renters) with children had one or more of three housing problems: physically inadequate housing, crowded housing, or cost burden resulting from housing that costs more than 30 percent of household income.74 Increasing incidence of cost burdens drove the statistically significant increase75 from the 45 percent of households with children that had a housing problem in 2009.
  • In 2011, about 6 percent of households with children had physically inadequate housing, defined as housing with severe or moderate physical problems. In 2009, the rate was a historic low of 5 percent, compared with 9 percent in 1978.
  • Crowded housing, defined as more than one person per room, increased to 7 percent of households with children in 2011 from 6 percent in 2009.
  • The incidence of housing cost burdens continues to increase among households with children. In 2011, approximately 41 percent had cost burdens, up from 39 percent in 2009 and only 15 percent in 1978. The proportion of households with severe cost burdens, defined as paying more than half of their income for housing, has tripled from 6 percent in 1978 to 18 percent in 2011.
  • Severe housing problems are defined as severe cost burdens or severe physical problems experienced by households that receive no housing assistance.76 The percentage of households with children facing severe housing problems was 18 percent in 2011, compared with 17 percent in 2009.
  • Severe housing problems are especially prevalent among very-low-income renters.77 The incidence of severe problems among very-low-income renters with children increased from 40 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2011.
  • Severe housing problems frequently lead to eviction and homelessness. During 2011, an estimated 149,000 children, or 2.0 per 1,000 children, were found to be homeless at a single point in time.78

table icon PHY5 HTML Table

69 Breysse, P., Farr, N., Galke, W., Lanphear, B., Morley, R., and Bergofsky, L. (2004). The relationship between housing and health: Children at risk. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(15), 1583–1588.

70 Krieger, J., and Higgins, D.L. (2002). Housing and health: Time again for public health action. American Journal of Public Health, 92(5), 758–68.

71 Bridge, C., Flatau, P., Whelan, S., Wood, G., and Yates, J. (2003). Housing assistance and non-shelter outcomes. Sydney, AU: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

72 Cutts, D., et al. (2011). U.S. housing insecurity and the health of very young children. American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1508–1514.

73 Physically inadequate units are defined as those with moderate or severe physical problems. Common types of problems include lack of complete plumbing for exclusive use, unvented room heaters as the primary heating equipment, and multiple upkeep problems such as water leakage, open cracks or holes, broken plaster, or signs of rats. See definition in Appendix A of the American Housing Survey summary volume, American Housing Survey for the United States: 2007. (2008). Current Housing Reports, Series H150, U.S. Census Bureau.

74 Paying 30 percent or more of income for housing may leave insufficient resources for other basic needs. See Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance, National Research Council. (1995). Measuring poverty: A new approach. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from

75 For the housing problems indicator, the statistical significance of differences from year to year is determined at the 0.05 level of probability using standard methods. However, these methods only approximate whether changes are significant because they do not fully account for the panel design of the American Housing Survey, in which selected housing units are revisited in subsequent years and therefore produce nonindependent samples.

76 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers renter households to have "priority" housing problems if they have eligible incomes for, but do not receive, rental assistance, and they report either severe housing cost burdens or severe physical problems with their housing units. Because of questionnaire changes, data after 1997 on assisted families, priority problems, and severe physical problems are not comparable to earlier data.

77 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines "very-low-income renters" as renter households with incomes at or below half the median family income, adjusted for family size, within their geographic area.

78 The estimate is based on a count of persons who, during a single night in January, were either using an emergency shelter or transitional housing services, or were on the street or other place not intended for human habitation. Homeless service providers in the Continuum of Care network are required to conduct such counts as a condition of funding. The estimate has the limitation of relying on several assumptions about the comparability of sheltered and unsheltered populations and families. See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. (2011). The 2011 point-in-time estimates of homelessness: Supplement to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Washington, DC: Author.