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The Economic Downturn's Other Housing Problem

This week, the Census bureau released new data that further illustrates the troubling impact of persistent economic woes. Since 2007, the Bureau reports, millions of American households have “doubled up”—meaning that in nearly one out of every five American households, “a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder” has moved in. That’s a common response to economic downturns, particularly with young adults and extended families: As the Chicago Tribune notes, “Much of the increase was the result of adult children who either moved back home during the recession or never left.” Obviously, for many, sharing a living space softens the blow of the economic downturn. But are there downsides to crowding more people under one roof?

A 2003 article in the Journal of Social Issues notes that a diverse country like the United States has no definitively “normative” household arrangement—African-African and Hispanic households, for example, are more likely to homeshare than White households at all income levels. But it also offers an intriguing survey of the potential problems that result from recession-induced doubled-up living. While homesharing does seem to benefit the elderly (who report increased happiness and security), for others it can pose serious health consequences: For one, increased house density can reduce air quality, provoke respiratory infections, and indirectly increase the incidence of asthma attacks. And there is some evidence that the stigma of poverty-induced homesharing can negatively impact mental health.

On these and many other questions, however, definitive research is still needed—and unfortunately, researchers are unlikely to experience a shortage of real-world case studies anytime soon.