By: Maggie Marsh
Reproductive justice challenges how inequity shapes peoples’ decisions about if and when to become pregnant or raise children, and their ability to parent in good health and free from violence by individuals or the state. Access to secure and stable housing is correlated closely with good health, with serious implications for reproductive health, justice, and freedom. If individuals choose to become pregnant and parent, safe housing is critical to ensure they can adequately plan for and raise their families in healthy environments without the threat of eviction and homelessness. On the other hand, for individuals trying to avoid pregnancy and parenting, insecure housing may mean deciding between paying rent or paying for abortion care. Insecure housing and homelessness also reduce access to reproductive healthcare services such as contraception to prevent pregnancy, STIs, and HIV, abortion care, and pre-natal care for individuals who choose to carry a pregnancy to term. Additionally, individuals and families experiencing homelessness may become more at risk of sexual victimization and violence (Young & Fredericksen, 2017). For these reasons, addressing housing insecurity and homelessness through anti-racist and gender-aware housing and eviction policies is a critical component of reproductive justice.
The multidimensional consequences of housing discrimination, eviction, homelessness, and poor living conditions impact Black and Brown communities and low-income renters most. One study analyzed how discrimination in the rental market leads to exposure to chemical toxins from industrial plants disproportionately impacting people of color. Researchers found that Black and Brown individuals and families are more likely to face discrimination when seeking rental housing in low pollution exposure areas, and have an easier time securing housing in high pollution exposure places (Christensen et al., 2020). For pregnant people exposed to toxic emissions, this exposure can lead to miscarriages, pre-term birth, low-birth weight, and reduced fertility (Currie et al., 2015), and this in utero exposure can have long-term impacts on children’s development, learning. and health (Wang et al., 2016). Low-income families already have limited affordable housing options, and environmental injustice and racial discrimination make finding safe and secure housing in the rental market almost impossible.
Low-income single parents face the greatest threat of eviction in the U.S., and Black and Latinx folks with children are particularly at risk. Having children exposes families to eviction, rather than protecting them. Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, contextualizes eviction data and concludes that evictions are not only the result of poverty, but they are a cause of poverty. Experiencing an eviction can lead to a cycle of financial insecurity, job loss, family instability, and homelessness, and can have long-term adverse consequences for parents’ mental and physical health and children’s education and development (Vásquez-Vera, 2017).
A review of the health equity implications of eviction found that parents who have recently been evicted are more likely to report poor health, and evicted families experience a higher prevalence of chronic diseases, high blood pressure, domestic violence and child maltreatment (Vásquez-Vera, 2017). People threatened with eviction have difficulty paying adequate attention to their children and meeting other daily needs due to the anxiety triggered by a foreclosure, and a study among low- and moderate-income homeowners threatened with eviction found that this situation can generate sufficient stress to break up families (Vásquez-Vera, 2017). Furthermore, this stress also increased symptoms of depression, and depleted children’s access to material, social and psychological resources (Vásquez-Vera, 2017). Additionally, tenants who experience a forced move tend to relocate to poorer and higher-crime neighborhoods than those who move of their own accord (Desmond & Shollenberger, 2015). Both the discriminatory rental market and eviction lead low-income folks and communities of color to environmentally hazardous and unsafe conditions which seriously threaten reproductive freedom and parents’ ability to care for their children in a safe and secure environment.
Tenants evicted through the court system carry the judgment on their record, and many states have open record laws, making this information easily accessible and free online. Landlords routinely use tenant screening policies which deny housing applications whenever an applicant was named in an eviction case. This essentially creates tenant blacklists which disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities, especially single parents, and make it nearly impossible to rent. Housing lawyers say these lists are often filled with errors, and tenants are often placed on the list even when a court never ordered the eviction or a tenant legally withheld rent due to poor living conditions (Barker & Silver-Greenberg, 2016). Eviction coupled with these tenant screening policies can result in a perpetual cycle of housing insecurity and poverty, ultimately leading families to homelessness.
People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault, and often lack access to legal, medical, and mental health services to support their recovery (Jasinski et al, 2005). Homelessness also increases the risk of STI and HIV transmission (Williams & Bryant, 2018), and those impacted have less access to reproductive health care services, including contraception, STI treatment and prevention, abortion care, and pre-natal services. People of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and individuals living with disabilities face additional barriers to these services. These combined factors result in higher rates of unintended pregnancy among homeless populations. In 2009, approximately 10% of women aged 15–44 were pregnant in the United States, compared to 50–60% of homeless women (Cronley et al., 2016). The ability to decide if and when to become pregnant is severely limited for people experiencing homelessness. And for families with children, the ability to raise their children in a safe and stable environment is impossible amid these barriers to affordable and accessible housing.
To address the reproductive health, freedom, and justice issues around housing insecurity and homelessness, policy makers must recognize eviction as a root cause of poverty which disproportionately impacts single parents with children, especially Black and Brown families. In doing so, poverty alleviation policies and programs should be established which prioritize keeping families together and in safe and secure housing. Landlords and tenants should be able to refer to a third party for public funding when a tenant is struggling to pay rent, and eviction record availability should be limited so that screening tenants for prior evictions is more difficult. The historical impact of racist housing and zoning policies which segregate our neighborhoods and lead to worse environmental health outcomes in low-income communities and communities of color must be addressed simultaneously. Additionally, cities should establish accessible public housing infrastructure in safe communities to protect families from homelessness. The eviction and homelessness crises can only be solved with coordination between federal, state, and municipal governments, with insight from experts in public health, environmental justice, and reproductive justice. Designing policies through these lenses which center the communities most impacted by housing insecurity and reproductive injustice is the best way to meet their needs and give individuals and families the opportunity to decide if and when to become pregnant and raise their families in healthy and secure environments.
Barker, K. & Silver-Greenberg, J. (2016, August 16). On Tenant Blacklist, Errors and Renters With Little Recourse. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/nyregion/new-york-housing-tenant-blacklist.html
Christensen, P., Sarmiento-Barbieri, I., & Timmins, C. (2020). Housing Discrimination and the Pollution Exposure Gap in the United States: Evidence from the Rental Market. National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 26805. http://www.nber.org/papers/w26805
Cronley, C., et al. (2016). Reproductive health rights and survival: The voices of mothers experiencing homelessness. Women and Health, vol 58, 3 (2016): 320–333. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1080/03630242.2017.1296060
Currie, J., Davis L., Greenstone, M., & Walker, R. (2015). Environmental Health Risks and Housing Values: Evidence from 1,600 Toxic Plant Openings and Closings. American Economic Review, 105 (2): 678–709. DOI: 10.1257/aer.20121656
Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York, NY: Crown Publishers. ISBN: 978‐0‐553‐44743‐9.
Desmond, M & Shollenberger, T. (2015). Forced Displacement From Rental Housing: Prevalence and Neighborhood Consequences. Demography 52:1751–1772 DOI 10.1007/s13524–015–0419–9.
Jasinski, J., Wesely, J., Mustaine, E., & Wright, J.D. (2005). Experience of Violence in the Lives of Homeless Women: A Research Report. National Institute of Justice. Grant #2002WGBX0013
Kleysteuber, R. (2007). Tenant Screening Thirty Years Later: A Statutory Proposal To Protect Public Records. Yale Law Journal, 116 (6): 1170–1399. https://www.yalelawjournal.org/note/tenant-screening-thirty-years-later-a-statutory-proposal-to-protect-public-records
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Wang, A., Padula, A., & Sirota, M. (2016). Environmental influences on reproductive health: the importance of chemical exposures. Fertility and sterility vol. 106, 4: 905–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.07.1076
Williams, S. & Bryant, K. (2018). Sexually Transmitted Infection Prevalence among Homeless Adults in the United States: A Systematic Literature Review. Sexually Transmitted Diseases 45(7): 494–504. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000780
Young, E. & Fredericksen, T. (2017). 2017. DC Women’s Needs Assessment Report. The Women’s Task Force of the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness. https://www.calvaryservices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2017dcwnafullreport.pdf