A new paper from researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior shows that children who live in public housing experience significantly better mental health outcomes than those who are on a waitlist to receive public housing. A similar effect is not found in other housing assistance program types such as housing choice vouchers or multifamily housing programs, despite their emphasis in federal housing policy.
According to the researchers, the study provides the first nationally representative analysis of children’s mental health that compares the effects of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) three major assistance programs: the public housing program, the housing choice voucher program, and the multifamily housing program. The researchers define the three programs as follows: The public housing program refers to entire developments of subsidized housing owned and operated by public housing agencies. Housing choice vouchers allow recipients to enter the private housing market by providing a housing subsidy that is paid on the renter’s behalf directly to landlords. Multifamily housing programs involve privately owned housing developments that reserve a certain number of housing units for rent at below-market rates, with the difference in price subsidized by HUD.
Using data from the National Health Interview Survey linked with HUD administrative housing assistance records, the researchers examined the relationship between the three types of housing assistance programs and mental health outcomes. The paper finds evidence that the mental health benefits supplied by housing assistance policies are only present for children who live in public housing.
The researchers underline that the HUD’s current approach to housing assistance policy emphasizes housing vouchers due to “Concerns about the characteristics of neighborhoods formed by dense public housing projects.” The study’s findings are in contrast to the widespread negative expectations about the effects of growing up in project-based housing. To explain this, the researchers theorize that “Public housing may provide greater access to social ties or the opportunity to develop social networks for economically isolated families, which could provide a source of social stability for their children.”
With the growing housing affordability problem in the United States, the researchers underline that a lack of support for public housing has severe implications for the stability and economic circumstances of low-income families. The mental health benefits gained by children living in public housing can also have important impacts on later-life outcomes. The researchers add that “Increased investments in affordable housing through federal housing assistance can be a means to improve population health by leveraging the social determinants of health, and may function as a means to reduce socioeconomic and racial-ethnic disparities in health and well-being among children.”
The paper, “The Impact of Housing Assistance on the Mental Health of Children in the United States,” was written by Drs. Andrew Fenelon, Natalie Slopen, Michel Boudreaux from UMD School of Public Health and Dr. Sandra J. Newman from Johns Hopkins and published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.