off the charts
POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Hidden Housing Instability: 3.7 Million People Live in Doubled-Up Households

Over 3.7 million people lived in doubled-up households in 2019, including an estimated 2.2 million renters, a recent report analyzing American Community Survey data found, exposing an often-hidden but widespread crisis in housing. “Doubling up,” or living with others because of economic hardship or housing loss, can lead to overcrowded living conditions, place undue strain on personal or familial relationships, and hinder kids’ performance in school. Rising rents in recent months have likely increased strain on renters.

Rental assistance programs, particularly the Housing Choice Voucher program, are key to reducing housing hardship, including households who are forced to double up because they can’t afford housing of their own. Congress has the opportunity this year in the final appropriations bill to invest in rental assistance.

People of color experience the highest rates of doubling up, mirroring deep racial disparities in housing instability and sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. Doubling up may be a temporary arrangement, the precursor to living in a shelter or on the street, or part of an ongoing cycle of housing instability and homelessness. Even those able to find housing after doubling up may not remain stably housed due to high rent burden and a shortage of affordable rental units.

Accurately counting families who are doubled up due to economic necessity can be difficult. Some families may be doubled up because they form intergenerational households by choice, for example to provide care for aging family members or because it can provide a supportive environment for young parents.

To more accurately count families forced to double up due to economic hardship, this new report uses a measure designed with input from families with experience living doubled up. For millions of people struggling to keep a roof over their heads, doubling up serves as a private housing safety net, necessary in part because of the inadequacy of federal funding for housing assistance.

The often negative experience of doubling up can have serious consequences for a child’s education. For example, doubling up can hinder school performance and chances of graduating high school. Due largely to racist housing policies and systemic inequities in employment and education, the harmful impacts of doubling up on educational outcomes fall disproportionately on Black and Latino students. Doubling up is also associated with increased food and medical hardship and crowded living arrangements, which can harm a child’s behavioral and physical health.

People with low incomes are more likely to live doubled up in the South, a fact that runs counter to the common perception that the affordable housing crisis is largely concentrated in high-cost areas on the East and West coasts (see interactive map and table below).

Consider the extreme example of Mississippi: it has the nation’s lowest per-capita rate of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, 4 people for every 10,000, but it’s third highest for doubled-up households per capita — nearly 200 people for every 10,000. Mississippi renter incomes fell 7 percent from 2001 to 2019 after adjusting for inflation while rents climbed 8 percent over the same period, likely contributing to the state’s higher prevalence of doubled-up families.

This same pattern of high rates of housing hardship in the South is seen in other measures as well, including the share of low-income renters paying more than half of their incomes in rent. While rents are lower in many areas in the South than in many high-cost cities, renter incomes are often much lower as well, creating a large gap between housing costs and what many low-income households can afford to pay.

The new data from the report help to show one consequence of inadequate rental assistance, which leaves large numbers of families and children living in unstable, doubled-up housing. It also shows why investing in rental assistance along with efforts to build more affordable housing can reduce hardship and improve housing stability.

People living in doubled-up households, as defined by this new report, are living in these situations because they’re struggling to afford rent. Housing assistance would allow them to live independently and mitigate the poor outcomes associated with living in these doubled-up households. Expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program — which bridges the gap between a household’s income and rent costs in their communities while allowing them choice of where they want to live — is the best solution for most families to help them afford stable housing on their own.

Housing vouchers are effective at keeping families safely and stably housed. Multiple, rigorous studies sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development confirm the effectiveness of housing vouchers in reducing the risk of experiencing doubled-up living arrangements. It’s critical that we keep shedding light on — and addressing — this often-hidden form of housing instability and hardship, largely overlooked in current policy discussions.

Doubled-up
Map:
People living doubled up
Below 50
50 to 100
100 to 150
Over 150
Millions Living Doubled Up Nationwide; Problem Especially Prevalent in South
People living doubled up per 10,000 people in 2019

Note: “Doubling up” = people with incomes below or near the poverty threshold living with others because of economic hardship or housing loss. For more details on what types of household arrangements are considered doubled up, see Richard et al. (2022)

Source: Richard et al. (2022), “Quantifying Doubled up Homelessness: Presenting a New Measure Using U.S. Census Microdata,” Supplemental Materials, Section A

Sheltered/Unsheltered
Map:
Sheltered and unsheltered homelessness
Below 10
10 to 15
15 to 20
Over 20
Sheltered and Unsheltered Homelessness Especially Concentrated in West and Northeast
Sheltered and unsheltered homelessness per 10,000 people in 2019

Source: Richard et al. (2022), “Quantifying Doubled up Homelessness: Presenting a New Measure Using U.S. Census Microdata,” Supplemental Materials, Section A

Table 1
People Living Doubled Up vs. Those Experiencing Sheltered or Unsheltered Homelessness, per 10,000 People
Table:
People living doubled up vs. those experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness
Doubled-up
Sheltered/Unsheltered
People Living Doubled Up
People Experiencing Sheltered/Unsheltered Homelessness

Note: “Doubling up” = people with incomes below or near the poverty threshold living with others because of economic hardship or housing loss. For more details on what types of household arrangements are considered doubled up, see Richard et al. (2022)

Source: Richard et al. (2022), “Quantifying Doubled up Homelessness: Presenting a New Measure Using U.S. Census Microdata,” Supplemental Materials, Section A