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Office of News & Public Affairs

BC Researcher Seeks Links Between Child Development and Housing Among Low-income Families

Project Supported by $900K Grant from MacArthur Foundation

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (February 2011) – Lynch School of Education Associate Professor Rebekah Levine Coley is part of a team of researchers who have been awarded a $900,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to examine the role that housing plays in the development of children in low-income families.

Coley, with Tama Leventhal and Linda Burton, of Tufts and Duke universities respectively, will study how housing influences children’s well being between infancy and the middle school years. The funding for the project comes from the MacArthur Foundation’s How Housing Matters to Families and Communities initiative.

Lynch School researcher Rebekah Levine Coley

“We’re trying to understand how parents with limited economic resources make difficult choices about housing within the context of economic and social constraints,” said Coley, a developmental psychologist. “Many low-income families have to make decisions between access to quality housing and access to decent medical care or to adequate food. We hope to learn more about how they make those decisions.”

The role of housing in childhood development has never been studied in as comprehensive a fashion as proposed by the research team of Coley, Burton, an urban sociologist, and Leventhal, a developmental psychologist.

“There is a fair amount of research on housing contexts and housing policy,” said Coley. “But relatively little of it has focused on children and how housing choices influence children’s development. Of that research, none has studied housing and related contexts in a really comprehensive way.”

The researchers will draw on data from the massive Three-City Study, which tracked 2,400 low-income children and their families from poor urban neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio between 1999 and 2006. Coley and Burton were part of the team that collected the Three-City Study data.

The researchers will be examining the trade-offs low-income families must make when considering housing options by weighing factors such as physical quality, crowding, stability, homeownership, subsidies and affordability. Where housing falls as a priority among other needs – such as neighborhood safety, food and medical care – is another point of inquiry. The team will ultimately develop a conceptual model that explains how children’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development is influenced by housing.

Through the three-year project, the team plans to work closely with housing policy makers and professionals in the field in order to improving housing policy, build better supports for low-income families, and explain to a broad audience the connections between housing and issues such as nutrition, health care and employment.

For Coley, the project will dovetail with another study, which recently received $324,000 from the W.T. Grant Foundation. That research will examine the role housing plays in influencing the well being of low-income youth as they transition to adulthood, using Three-City Study data collected on individuals between the ages of 10 and 21.

-- Ed Hayward, an associate director in the Office of News & Public Affairs, can be reached at