Authors’ Blog: Housing and Household Instability

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. The Online First abstract can be found here
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Housing and Household Instability


Authors: Matthew Desmond and Kristin L. Perkins
Harvard University
Research attempting to estimate the effects of residential instability on children and adolescents commonly overlooks other changes within households that may be coincident with—and potentially more consequential than—moving.  Because the research on residential instability focuses primarily on its effects on children and adolescents and long has emphasized how moving may weaken familial bonds, which in turn may be harmful to young people, it is particularly important to observe the frequency at which residential or housing instability is accompanied by family or household instability.  Because instabilities may cluster in time, documenting the extent to which residential instability is accompanied by other forms of instability can inform future efforts to estimate the effects of moving and improve our understanding of how residential instability may or may not drive social and health disparities. 

Drawing on novel data of renting households in Milwaukee that recently relocated, this study establishes the frequency at which residential or housing instability is accompanied by household instability: changes in the composition of adults living under the same roof.  It finds that over half of Milwaukee renters who experienced a recent residential relocation also experienced a change in household composition.  It also finds that renters who live with young children are significantly more likely to experience household instability alongside residential instability. If household instability often accompanies housing instability, then researchers attempting to estimate the effects of the latter should account for the possible influence of the former.  This is particularly important if analysts wish to estimate the effects of moving on very young children, since our multivariate analyses found that renters with children under 2 had a significantly heightened likelihood of experiencing household instability alongside housing instability.


Moving can entail considerably more than the move. It often also involves a    reconfiguration of one’s household environment.  Changes to that environment, this study found, can imply multiple transitions far more variegated than what would be predicted by the standard life course model.  These observations open up the possibility for a potentially revealing line of research investigating which instability is more consequential for children and adolescents. Future research drawing on different data could examine which change, housing or household, matters more.  Children who at first look fairly stable—e.g., living in the same apartment for five years—may nonetheless live with a large number of different adults over a relatively short time period.  Relatedly, studies could investigate how children adjust to different household changes, as one might predict that different types of transitions—e.g., from one set of family members to another, from living with a parent to living with non-related adults—have different effects on children.  Because the complexity of the family has increased, especially in low-income neighborhoods, so too must the complexity of our analyses. 

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