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The Challenges of Residential Instability

Homelessness is a critical issue facing the nation, but a new report examines the challenges of “housing instability,” and how communities can intervene to deal with the problem before it reaches the point of homelessness.

That’s the topic of the Urban Institute report “Family Residential Instability: What Can States and Localities Do?” authored by Brett Theodos and Sara McTarnaghan of the Urban Institute and Claudia Coulton of Case Western Reserve University. The report is compiled from a roundtable meeting convened by the Urban Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, drawing upon the insights of “more than 40 practitioners, advocates, public officials, researchers, and funders” who “shared practical insights about successful strategies and pitfalls of policy and program solutions to address family residential instability.”

As the report points out, there are many problems faced by families who may not yet be homeless, but who are suffering from residential instability. Moreover, the reasons behind this residential instability can vary significantly depending on both the individual and the region where they are located, among other factors.

The report first focuses on a factor related to residential instability—residential mobility. Moving isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the report defines residential instability as “when the frequency of residential mobility in a household or individual is high or occurs over short intervals.” Residential instability can also be a sign of housing insecurity, “which refers to households that have difficulty remaining adequately housed because of problems affording or maintaining their housing.” The report continues to say that “Mobile households frequently have periods of homelessness, including living on the streets, in shelters, or doubled-up temporarily.”

The Urban Institute report found five primary contributors to residential instability: neighborhood dynamics, housing unit conditions, household characteristics, metropolitan area and housing market dynamics, and cross-cutting systems (such as “the availability of housing assistance and other social safety net supports, the criminal justice system, and labor markets”).

The report explains that those affected by residential instability are often forced by circumstance to accept whatever housing they can find, and “they often end up in worse housing conditions and drained of financial resources.” Low-income families, in particular, are often forced to move frequently and have less control over where they wind up, which can affect both the parents and children within a family.

So, how can communities help address the problem of housing instability? One key factor is working to improve housing supply and availability—no easy feat, given how many markets are currently struggling with housing inventory shortages. “States and localities can work toward these aims by supporting landlords, creating sufficiently strong landlord-tenant laws, and enforcing housing codes,” states the report. The Urban report also recommends communities make use of federal resources, focus resources on the segments of the housing supply most in need of resupply, and work to preserve and subsidize existing affordable housing.

The report also highlights the importance of examining both landlord-tenant laws and the enforcement of housing codes. “Rather than simply enforcing housing codes in ways that cause greater displacement, more proactive engagement of code enforcers in low-income neighborhoods is needed,” the report states. “Smarter, more effective code enforcement will rely on both carrot and stick approaches to address housing quality and conditions. Smarter code enforcement will hold people accountable and provide low-cost financial loans or grants for landlords who lack the resources make needed improvements. This may be in exchange for limiting the rent increases which can result from upgraded properties.”

To read the full Urban Institute report on residential instability, click here.

About Author: David Wharton

David Wharton, Editor-in-Chief at the Five Star Institute, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where he received his B.A. in English and minored in Journalism. Wharton has nearly 20 years' experience in journalism and previously worked at Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm, as Associate Content Editor, focusing on producing media content related to tax and accounting principles and government rules and regulations for accounting professionals. Wharton has an extensive and diversified portfolio of freelance material, with published contributions in both online and print media publications. He can be reached at [email protected]

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