The State of America’s Children 2021 – Housing and Homelessness2021-03-28T18:48:46-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021

Housing and Homelessness


Having a safe, stable home is a basic need for all children. Homelessness, unstable housing, and the unavailability of affordable housing have dire consequences for children’s health, education, and future earning potential. Yet, the right to a decent, safe, and affordable home was out of reach even before the COVID-19 crisis for far too many children and families—but particularly for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous families. Access to housing is a racial justice issue as families of color, especially Black families, are more likely to experience eviction, homelessness, and segregated housing and neighborhoods due to racist policies built deep into our housing system.

The affordable housing crisis has deep and racist roots, but stems largely from policymakers’ intentional divestment from affordable housing and rental assistance programs.

  • Federal investment in housing was gutted in the 1970s and 80s and the number of unhoused children and families skyrocketed. The crisis deepened after the 2008 financial crisis as foreclosures forced 9 million new families into the rental market.1
  • As more families sought affordable and safe rental housing, construction failed to keep pace with growing demand, and the new units built were mostly luxury units in big cities. Rents rose and working-class wages remained stagnant, leaving many families unable to find suitable housing.2
  • By 2020, rents were so high that a person working full-time, year-round at minimum wage could not afford the monthly Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom rental unit in any state or the District of Columbia and still have enough money for food, utilities, and other necessities.3 To afford this rent, a single person working full-time would have to make almost $24 an hour, more than three times the federal minimum wage (see Table 8).4

These barriers to prosperity and disinvestment in federal housing programs have put decent, affordable housing out of reach for millions of people and disproportionately impacted Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities. Families with children are hit especially hard by the affordable housing crisis.

  • More than 1 in 3 children live in households burdened by housing costs, meaning more than 30 percent of their family income goes toward housing.Sixty-one percent of children in low-income households are rent-burdened.6
  • Nearly 2.6 million families with children experience “worst-case housing needs,” meaning they are extremely rent-burdened, their income is at or below the poverty line, they spend half of their income on housing, and receive no housing assistance from the government.7
  • Twenty percent of Black households, 17 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native households, 15 percent of Hispanic households, and 10 percent of Asian households (compared to just six percent of white households), are extremely low-income renters and are often locked out of affordable housing due to systemic and structural racism and decades of racist policies.8

The affordable housing crisis is the primary reason so many families are unhoused. Children made up 107,069—nearly 1 in 5—of the nearly 568,000 people who were unhoused on a single night in January 2019.9

  • Thirty percent of people who were unhoused were in families with children, and half of all families who are unhoused with children lived in just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. Family homelessness declined by 5 percent between 2018 and 2019 and by 27 percent between 2007 and 2019.10
  • In 2019, more than half of individuals in families who were unhoused were Black.11 Black youth are 83 percent more likely than youth of other races to be unhoused.12
  • More than 1.3 million children under six were unhoused in 2017.13

More than 1.5 million unhoused children were enrolled in public schools during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Department of Education, excluding younger children and youth not enrolled in school (see Table 9).14

  • The number of unhoused students has increased by 15 percent since the 2015-2016 school year.15
  • Seventy-four percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends; 12 percent were in shelters or transitional housing; 7 percent were in hotels or motels; and 7 percent were unsheltered, often living in abandoned buildings or cars.16
  • Access to school for unhoused children is complicated by economic mobility and the lack of school supplies and clothes, funds for transportation, and necessary records to enroll in a new school. The trauma, poor physical and mental health, hunger, and fatigue many experience continue to challenge these children when they get to school.
  • In addition to school-aged public school students, 4.2 million teens and young adults experienced homelessness during 2016 and 2017.17 Black and Hispanic youth, youth living in poverty, and young adults; youth with less than a high school diploma or GED; young parents; youth aging out of foster care; and LGBTQ youth were all at especially high risk of homelessness.

Housing insecurity and homelessness are exacerbated by a lack of accessible federal assistance. This assistance is extremely effective, but these programs do not come close to meeting families’ needs because they are woefully underfunded.

  • Families with children make up 60 percent of those helped by federal rental assistance.
  • Although federal rental assistance can help reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding, only 1 in 4 eligible households receive it.18
  • Housing vouchers can help families move from areas of concentrated poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods. Children who moved from concentrated poverty neighborhoods before age 13 have been shown to have higher earnings as 26-year-old adults when compared with those who did not leave the neighborhoods.19
  • Vouchers for unhoused families with children reduce foster care placements by more than half and also reduce school moves and other hardships.20

COVID-19 Has Pushed Millions of Children and Families to the Brink of Eviction

The pandemic has accelerated the nationwide affordable housing crisis and the racial inequities in housing. By February 2021, the hardship facing renter families with children was staggering. More than a quarter of renter families with children were behind on their rent.21 In February, nearly 4 in 10 of those families reported little or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent.22 Most shocking of all, almost half of renter families with children said it was either somewhat or very likely that they would lose their home within the next two months due to eviction.23

Though evictions were banned in many states and localities for much of 2020 and banned nationwide beginning in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many evictions slipped through the patchwork of legal protections and became a major driver of the spread of COVID-19. Evictions that took place between the beginning of the pandemic and the CDC’s national eviction moratorium in September led to 433,700 excess COVID-19 cases and 10,700 additional deaths.24

If the CDC’s eviction moratorium is allowed to expire before renters receive adequate assistance from Congress, 30 to 40 million renters are at risk of losing their home due to eviction.25 The fallout from such a wave of evictions would be devastating, a crisis primed by the nation’s failure to address its underlying affordable housing crisis.