Toward a unified measure of U.S. housing insecurity

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The consequences of the Trump administration’s proposed steep cuts to the housing social safety net are serious but unquantifiable. Policymakers should look to the development of the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module as a roadmap to create a standard instrument to measure housing security.

New Working Paper
Roadmap to a unified measure of housing insecurity

Housing is often used as a barometer of achievement in U.S. society. The type of home we live in and our neighborhoods are signals of pedigree, of where we fall on the socioeconomic ladder. Nevertheless, housing is in fact one of life’s few necessities. Although many of us might take it for granted, we need stable quality housing to be healthy, productive citizens. Housing and neighborhoods influence our emotional and physical well-being, human capital development, and social networks. At its core, housing is a human right.

When we think of those who experience housing insecurity, we often think of the extreme: the homeless. Yet many individuals and families struggle daily to find and maintain affordable, quality housing. These struggles often go unseen until some major event such as the housing market crash a decade ago or last year’s tragic Oakland, California, warehouse fire. The housing market crash, in particular, brought to light that no matter our status in society, we are all susceptible to a housing crisis.

Housing insecurity is often invisible to the public. In fact, we do not really know the true extent to which Americans, or others in the world, suffer from housing problems. Unlike food insecurity, there is no uniform measure for housing insecurity that captures all of housing’s various dimensions. More basic than that, we do not have shared language or a common definition that defines and guides our understanding of what constitutes housing insecurity.

Some housing experts describe housing problems as “housing instability.” Others utilize the chosen term for this article, “housing insecurity.” Still others use “housing insufficiency.” Likewise, housing problems are measured in various ways; some look strictly at housing affordability—spending more than 50 percent of one’s annual income on housing—while others incorporate behavioral aspects of housing insecurity such as multiple moves and overcrowding.

The lack of a unifying term and definition inhibits the mobilization of research, resources, and public policy surrounding this issue. But there is a model that could be used to fix this problem. The food insecurity measure came about after the 1984 President’s Task Force on Food Assistance found that the lack of a credible indicator for hunger inhibited public policy regarding this issue. By October 1990, the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act passed in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives requiring the preparation and implementation of a 10-year plan, which included as a goal to “establish and improve the quality of national nutritional and health status data and related data bases and networks, and stimulate research necessary to develop uniform indicators, standards, methodologies, technologies, and procedures for nutrition monitoring.”

In 1995, the first federal food security instrument was included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, and since then, our understanding of food insecurity has grown tremendously. We now know more about food insecurity’s risk factors and whether it is a chronic state or temporary. Food security has become an important indicator for the well-being of households and children, as well as an outcome in the evaluation of food assistance programs. All of this is the result of a transdisciplinary effort that included practitioners, policymakers, and academics committed to developing a validated instrument that could be used to understand, similar to housing, one of society’s most intractable and often hidden problems.

As we enter into a period of increasing wealth inequality, gentrification, and threats to the housing social safety net, it is imperative that policymakers revisit housing insecurity so that they can understand the degree to which individuals and families suffer from the more hidden dimensions of housing insecurity, determine the burden of housing insecurity on society, and devise strategies and solutions to address this problem.

As you may have already surmised, the common term endorsed by my co-authors and me is “housing insecurity.” While this is not the most frequently used term in the literature, we argue that it will provide familiar, accessible language to society given the widespread adoption and success of the concept of food insecurity. We also put forth a definition of housing insecurity based on the 1969 indicators of housing instability described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Specifically, we define housing insecurity as:

Limited or uncertain availability of stable, safe, adequate, and affordable housing and neighborhoods; limited or uncertain access to stable, safe, adequate, and affordable housing and neighborhoods; or the inability to acquire stable, safe, adequate, and affordable housing and neighborhoods in socially acceptable ways.

We believe our definition is sound. But we also believe it is imperative for all key stakeholders to convene in order to agree upon a common language and definition. Regardless of what these turn out to be, we argue that there are six domains of housing insecurity that should be considered in any measure:

  • Housing stability
  • Housing affordability
  • Housing quality
  • Housing safety
  • Neighborhood safety
  • Neighborhood quality

We also argue that behavioral measures of housing insecurity should be incorporated within the measure, such as choosing to forgo other necessities such as food to pay for rent, and that the instrument used to measure this metric should have the ability to define housing insecurity along a continuum, such that the most housing secure and insecure can be represented within one measure.

On May 23, President Donald Trump released his official budget proposing to reduce spending on means-tested social safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing vouchers, by $272 billion over the next 10 years. Because there already is a validated food security measure, we can assess how these cuts will affect the food insecurity of American families and respond with key indicators of the damage that these cuts would cause to families and communities nationwide. Because we do not have a common housing insecurity instrument, we cannot confidently predict how the proposed $7.4 billion—15 percent—budget cut to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for fiscal year 2018 will affect the housing insecurity of U.S. households.

Although it is clear that these cuts to federal housing programs would, if enacted, reduce or eliminate funding to programs such as housing vouchers, Community Development Block Grants, and public housing, we cannot estimate the full extent to which American families will suffer due to increased homelessness and housing hardships. Leaders in Congress should both oppose these ill-intentioned cuts to the housing safety net and understand that any future proposed change to housing security programs needs to be accompanied by clear data that can inform decision-making moving forward. Now is the time to develop a uniform measure of housing insecurity. While this is a tall task, we are confident that it can be done. After all, we do not have to look very far in history to find a blueprint on how we could develop such a national instrument, given the relatively recent creation and implementation of the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module.

—Robynn Cox is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.

July 11, 2017


Robynn Cox


Economic Wellbeing

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