Children of the Pandemic Need Stable Housing

For children in this pandemic, the home is everything. Home has always been a shelter for children. But in normal times, children leave the safety of home to socialize and grow more independent. By contrast, children and their guardians now struggle to balance safety and growth as one public institution after another shuts down. Home must now replace schools and libraries, playgrounds and recreation centers. Even wealthy households have trouble coping in this new reality, but the struggles of stably housed families pale in significance when compared to the struggles of families who have been forcibly removed from their homes due to foreclosure and eviction.

Children, who thrive on consistency and security, especially suffer from evictions. Even when a family chooses to move to a new home, changed circumstances can be a trying event for children. When a family is forced out of its home, children experience profound levels of uncertainty. It’s little surprise then that eviction is associated with mental health risks such as depression and anxiety—and this holds even in the best of times. Being thrown out of one’s home when a deadly pandemic is sweeping the nation—when the home is the one truly safe place to be—raises the trauma of eviction to new levels.

COVID-19 and the related economic collapse are a perfect storm that expose how American children are harmed by the nation’s ongoing housing crisis. First and most seriously, evictions put families out into the world, where they risk infection or spreading the virus. While risks to children are relatively low, parents and caregivers are more vulnerable. Friends and family may hesitate to take in a displaced family during this time, while evicted families may hesitate to expose themselves to infections in crowded shelters. Coupled with the dearth of low-paying jobs in our “K-shaped economic recovery,” we would expect that a higher percentage of evicted families end up homeless than in regular times.

Even families that find a new home suffer long-term effects from evictions. For example, we know that evicted families generally relocate to lower quality housing and less desirable neighborhoods. Thus children in post-eviction homes may be more likely to develop asthma, lead poisoning, and other maladies associated with substandard housing and the tendency of governments to site highways and polluting industries next to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Given that COVID-19 has proven most deadly among populations exposed to air pollution and other chronic health issues, environmental racism makes eviction even more dangerous.

Even children and guardians who escape from this pandemic with their physical and mental health intact may still suffer long-term disadvantages. This is because eviction is not just a consequence, but also a cause of poverty. Evicted parents are more likely to lose their jobs, while evicted children fall behind in school. The negative effect of eviction on schooling is likely to intensify when public schools cannot serve as a safe place away from the home. Instead, unstably housed children (who are also unlikely to have high-speed internet) will suffer especially large learning deficits during the pandemic.

Fortunately, for many renters this worst-case scenario has been forestalled. The tidal wave of evictions has not yet washed across the country, being held back by a patchwork of state, federal, and city moratoriums that have kept many renters in their homes. These families are not safe, however. Unpaid rent accumulates and landlords complain to local officials. Nearly 45% of renting households report they are likely to be evicted in the next two months. And through gaps and loopholes or sheer illegality, over 83,000 evictions have been filed in just 22 cities between March 15 and October 22. Many more are sure to follow as families spend down emergency aid and, one by one, the moratoriums are lifted.

What can be done? In the short term, it is imperative to extend the eviction moratoriums until the pandemic has passed. It is also imperative to seal records of evictions processed during this epidemic, as such records stigmatize evicted renters and keep them from finding new housing. Additionally, income support for parents is necessary until the economy has recovered for everyone. Given the concentration of eviction risk in Black households, especially among Black mothers, generous income support should not be removed until employment rates for Black women reach high levels. Cities need to build more affordable housing, but in the meantime, they need to be more imaginative in the provision of housing. No child should be homeless while perfectly good homes remain unoccupied. The costs to society are high; the costs to these children are higher.

Carl Gershenson is a sociologist who studies housing and inequality at Princeton’s Eviction Lab. His research shows that eviction is a cause as well as a consequence of poverty, and that addressing our housing crisis is less costly to society than ignoring it.
Contact Dr. Gershenson

Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University,Evanston, IL