Informing the Next Generation of Rental Housing Policy

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The latest issue of HUD’s “Evidence Matters” publication features LIIF CEO & President Nancy O. Andrews’ concept for “children’s healthy start vouchers.” These vouchers could link affordable rental housing with programs to support better life outcomes for low-income children. An excerpt is included below.

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The Platform That Delivers: Rental Housing + Children
Nancy O. Andrews, president of the Low Income Investment Fund, was one of several presenters to propose using rental housing as a platform for creating better outcomes for children of low-income families. Specifically, she envisioned a “children’s healthy start voucher” that would link affordable housing to an array of early interventions: prenatal nutritional support; quality early childcare; community health care; replications of the family nurse visitation program, which trains caregivers to parent effectively; and quality schools.

Evidence exists for the efficacy of many of the services included in the proposed voucher. Research suggests that nutritional support programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, as well as increases in family income in the early childhood years, have more long-term effects than similar initiatives aimed at adults. Likewise, studies and experiments “have shown long-term effects — effects into adulthood — of high-quality early childhood education,” said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a social scientist at Columbia University Teachers College. Finally, each early intervention initiative “saves government spending later” on remedial programs, criminal justice, unemployment, and welfare, said Tama Leventhal, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University.

Cornell professor Gary Evans’ 17-year longitudinal study, which suggests that the stresses of poverty pose a serious threat to children’s brain development, inspired Andrews to conceive the idea of rental housing as the delivery platform for a healthy start voucher. Evans’ research, said Andrews, shows that the high stresses of poverty on children “actually create physical impairments in child brain formation. In other words, poverty poisons children’s brains.”2 Specifically, Evans demonstrated that these stresses inhibit executive function and working memory, the parts of the brain used in learning. Making matters worse is that the diminished function appears to be long lasting, perhaps permanent. The key point, said Andrews, is that the findings showed these mental impairments to be “the consequences of stress from poverty, and poverty alone.”

According to Andrews, Evans’ research is significant because it puts the results of the Moving to Opportunity experiment and Welfare to Work housing studies in a new light. Those two studies showed that families who moved to higher-opportunity neighborhoods experienced reductions in stress-related problems, including anxiety disorders, obesity, and depression. In the past, the results seemed disappointing “because we’d hoped for income and economic mobility…. But with Evans’ research on the impairment in child brain development, the importance of housing affordability and safe, quality communities came into sharp relief,” she said. “I began to see the connections among housing, community, and human potential.” When implemented together, the services embedded in her voucher concept will counteract the stresses on children’s brains and the resultant deficits. As a result, Andrews believes that lower-income children will enter kindergarten ready to learn, which may help diminish the achievement gap over the long term.

Source: Evidence Matters