The Link Between Overcrowded Housing and Mental Health

Rabiya Hussein


From New America Media / VoiceWaves


LONG BEACH -- Every morning before Evangelina Ramirez leaves for work, she cleans the house in a meticulous manner so that everything is where it belongs. She does this, she says, so she can come home to a clean house where she can unwind after a busy day at work.


Ramirez, a caregiver and a community activist, shares a three-bedroom apartment in central Long Beach with her two teenage children, a roommate and her roommate’s daughter. Unfortunately for Ramirez, the tight quarters mean that her dream of relaxing after work in a clean and quiet home is just that, a dream.


“As soon as I get home, I start feeling stressed because I have to work all day and then I go home and I find all the mess,” said Ramirez, who has lived in overcrowded homes for the past 20 years. “I start getting mad and start yelling at everybody.”


Ramirez’ experience is not uncommon. According to a new report by Housing Long Beach (HLB), a community non-profit, nearly 20,000 families are currently living in overcrowded housing in that city alone. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines overcrowded housing as any residence with at least 1.5 people per room.


According to the HLB report, individuals or families living in overcrowded housing situations are more likely than others to experience poor mental health outcomes including persistent stress, and even have a shorter life expectancy. Additionally, children who grow up in overcrowded homes are more likely to fall behind in their schooling and exhibit behavioral issues.


In spite of the health issues associated with overcrowded housing, said Ramiez, such arrangements are made out of necessity and not choice. Ramirez herself spent 17 years living in a small one-bedroom apartment with five other family members, prior to moving into her current home two years ago.


“I always kept my kids indoors so they don’t get into gangs and drugs, but the only thing [my oldest] son liked to do was eat. That made my son become overweight,” she said.

“Now he is an adult, and he is [an overweight] man who has many health problems.”


A younger son of Ramirez was diagnosed with ADHD, and she worried about the impact of the frequent yelling in the home, which she attributed to the stress of living in a cramped environment. “When a kid who has ADHD starts listening to someone who’s yelling, they start feeling anxious [and] he just doesn’t want to be home.”


Ramirez said her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, also suffered from having to share a room. “They didn’t have space to do their homework and all the things they need to do,” Ramirez said. “I tried to find another apartment but I [couldn’t] pay $ 1,400. It’s too much.”


Ramirez was eventually able to find a roommate, her best friend’s sister, lowering her share of the rent to $900 -- but even that was more than Ramirez, a minimum-wage earner, could afford to pay.


“Most of the time, per month, I get around $1,200 or $1,400. Most of the money goes to rent and another $300 on bills, like electricity, gas, Internet and cellphone. Sometimes I don’t have enough money for food and that’s the biggest problem.”



The accepted rule of thumb is that housing costs should be no more than 30 percent of a household income, to allow other basic needs to be met.


However, close to 130,000 Long Beach renters, including Ramirez, spend somewhere between 30 and 65 percent of their income on rent, said HLB Executive Director Kerry Gallagher.


“Some families cope and they have really affordable rent, but they live in really terrible, substandard units,” Gallagher said. “Other families cope by living in overcrowded homes. So it makes it more affordable, but it adds on all these impacts of the stress of living in an overcrowded environment.”


Currently, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Long Beach is $1,513 per month in the downtown area, and $1,200 in North Long Beach. That would require a single person to earn an hourly rate of $29.09 or $23.07, respectively, in order to afford that rent while not exceeding 30 percent of their overall take-home pay, according to HLB.


Furthermore, the report concludes, if the Long Beach tourism industry continues to create low-paying service-sector jobs while the California minimum wage stays stagnant at only $8.00 hour, “the imbalance between jobs and housing will tip further and further toward un-sustainability.”


Author Bio:

Rabiya Hussein is a student reporter at California State University Long Beach and a contributor to VoiceWaves, a youth-led community journalism project founded by New America Media to shine a light on community health issues.  The project is supported by a grant from The California Endowment.


From New America Media / VoiceWaves

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