Poor housing conditions harm children’s health and development

New research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth (DCEDIY), shows that while a big majority of children are living in adequate housing, poor housing conditions affect children’s health and social and emotional wellbeing. Using data on children born in 2007-2008 from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, the findings show that children living in inadequate housing and in more disorderly neighbourhoods have worse health and developmental outcomes at nine years old than their peers. Inadequate housing includes damp conditions, lack of heating and inadequate space. The report shows that the longer children are exposed to inadequate housing from birth to age 9 the more harm they experience.

Housing conditions and tenure during childhood

  • At age nine, 75 per cent of children lived in owner-occupied housing, 12 per cent in social housing, 11 per cent in the private rented sector and just over 1 per cent were living with their parent(s) in their grandparents’ home.
  • While the majority of nine-year-olds lived in accommodation that parents thought was suitable to their needs, one in ten lived in unsuitable housing, mainly due to the size of the accommodation. A similar proportion of children lived in homes that parents could not afford to keep warm, while 19 per cent were living in neighbourhoods that parents felt had higher levels of disorder, such as rubbish and vandalism.
  • For some children, inadequate housing conditions were a persistent problem throughout their childhood. Seven per cent of children spent persistent periods in homes that parents could not afford to keep warm; a similar proportion spent much of their childhood in housing that was too small; and 16 per cent spent persistent periods living in neighbourhoods with higher levels of disorder.
  • Housing conditions are closely linked to families’ socio-economic circumstances. Children with parents out of employment, who have lower incomes, less education, and who live in rented accommodation, are more likely to live in poorer housing conditions. However, even after taking account of families’ circumstances, children in lone-parent households were still more likely to live in private rented and social housing, and to experience heating deprivation and neighbourhood disorder.
  • Problems of housing quality are more common among those living in the private rented and social rented sectors (social housing).

Residential mobility during childhood

  • Close to 30 per cent of children moved house at least once by the time they were nine years old, with 7 per cent moving twice or more.
  • When families did move house, housing conditions were more likely to be better in their new home. However, moves were more common in the private rented sector.
  • A diverse range of factors influence house moves among young families. Moving house was more common among parents who separated but also among parents that formed new relationships. Moves were also more common when household income increased.

How inadequate housing matters for child outcomes

  • Longer exposure to poorer housing conditions significantly impacts on children’s social and emotional development. Nine-year-olds who spent more of their childhood in homes that parents could not afford to keep warm, that parents considered too small, or in more disorderly neighbourhoods, faced more social and emotional difficulties than those growing up in better-quality housing. Similarly, nine-year-olds who grew up in more disorderly neighbourhoods or in homes that parents felt were not child-friendly had less positive interactions with others compared to their peers.
  • Worse housing conditions can also harm children’s health. Respiratory problems (such as episodes of wheezing) are more common for nine-year-olds who spent longer living in poor housing conditions, such as damp, as well as in homes not adequately heated. Children who grew up in inadequately heated homes were also more likely to have worse health, as reported by their parents, and experience more accidents or injuries requiring medical treatment. Childhood accidents were also more prevalent in disorderly neighbourhoods.
  • The impact of moving house on children’s wellbeing depends on their families’ socio-economic background. Moving house is linked to better wellbeing among children in the top fifth of household incomes. However, among children in the bottom fifth of household incomes, moving house is associated with a significant increase in social and emotional difficulties.

Policy Implications 

The strong link found between low income and poorer housing circumstances in the report highlights the importance of broader income and welfare supports, as well as specific housing supports, in alleviating disadvantage. This has become particularly relevant in light of rising fuel costs, given the harm that inadequate heating does to child health and development. The report highlights the need for greater emphasis on inspection and follow-up of standards in the private rented and social housing sector, to address poorer housing conditions. Neighbourhood quality is an important aspect of housing conditions that is relevant for children’s development and health. Investments to improve the physical and social infrastructure in local communities are likely to pay dividends for the youngest members of society.

James Laurence, lead author of the report in the ESRI, said: “A significant minority of children experience periods of inadequate housing over their childhood, and some spend years exposed to poor housing conditions, with negative impacts on their social and emotional development and health. This reports shows that current housing policy needs to focus as much attention on housing quality and adequacy as supply and affordability, for the wellbeing of children and families”

Minister for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman said: “This report is an important reminder that when we speak of housing or accommodation for children, we are speaking of their home, which is more than a place of shelter but somewhere essential to their wellbeing and that of their family. The report has important policy implications across a number of Government departments, which reflects the fact that children’s wellbeing requires a whole of Government approach. For my own department, the report highlights the important role early years education can play in enhancing the cognitive and social-emotional wellbeing of children living in disadvantaged areas. Officials in my Department are currently progressing the development of a new strand of funding to tackle disadvantage in early learning and care services - whereby, services will be provided with a proportionate mix of universal and targeted supports for children and families accessing their services who are experiencing disadvantage.”