More Than Money: The psychological externalities of neighborhood foreclosures

Losing a home can have a strong and long-standing economic and psychological impact on older individuals and their families who experience the loss first-hand. But what about neighbors and friends who are left behind to see auction signs on homes that used to house old friends?

In their paper “The Onset of Depression During the Great Recession: Foreclosure and Older Adult Mental Health,” Kathleen A. Cagney, Christopher R. Browning, James Iveniuk, and Ned English find that a large number of foreclosures in one’s neighborhood can be an important risk factor for the onset of depression among older adults. More specifically, the authors find that foreclosures not only impact individuals and families who directly suffer the loss of a home, but also those who are left behind with less dense communities, neighborhood properties in disrepair, and a general sense of social withdrawal.

Survey data were collected from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a nationally representative study of older adults (those aged 57 years or above), which follows study subjects over a long period of time. Data were gathered from the 2005-2006 and the 2010-2011 NSHAP surveys, perfectly bounding the economic downturn and the foreclosure crisis. In order to accurately observe the difference in depressive symptoms, the authors used data of people who had taken the NSHAP survey both times. The respondents’ home addresses were linked to the US censuses of 2000 and 2010 to determine how many housing units were available in the areas of interest, and the NSHAP data was linked to the 2009 American Community Survey to see what proportion of people living in a respondent’s neighborhood fell below the poverty line. ZIP code level data were purchased from RealtyTrac, an authoritative source of data on foreclosure, to determine the percentage of housing units in a ZIP code that had experienced foreclosure.

Studying data from New YorkLos Angeles, and Chicago, the three most populous metropolitan areas for NSHAP respondents, the authors observed a dramatic rise in reports of depressive symptoms among older adults in communities that were hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Respondents who had not reported depressive symptoms in the 2005-2006 survey reported them when surveyed in 2010-2011, suggesting that the impact of foreclosure is independent of an existing psychological disorder. Furthermore, the symptoms were found to be worse among respondents whose mobility had reduced over this period of time, making feelings of loneliness and loss more acute.

Although the authors acknowledge the limitations of their data, for instance that the NSHAP data do not allow for a seamless comparison across age groups, they argue that focusing on older adults is important as they are more likely to have lived in a particular neighborhood over a longer period of time and have stronger ties to their surroundings. This would lend credence to the hypothesis that a change in living conditions, induced by foreclosure, would have an emotional impact on these older residents. In fact, studies show that feelings of extreme loneliness can have a severe impact on older individuals, including increasing the chances of a premature death.

As the United States continues to grapple with the aftershocks of the 2010 foreclosure crisis, this study has important implications for policymakers working on policies aimed at the elderly demographic in the US population. With the last of the baby boomers entering their sixties, policymakers must divert more attention towards the emotional needs of older adults, particularly with respect to health and housing needs. A home, old friends, and neighborhood landmarks are memories that enrich individual lives. These factors can in turn impact entire communities and shape local health across the country, therefore warranting the attention of policymakers.

Article Source: Kathleen A. Cagney, Christopher R. Browning, James Iveniuk, and Ned English, “The Onset of Depression During the Great Recession: Foreclosure and Older Adult Mental Health,” American Journal of Public Health 104, No. 3 (March 2014): 498-505.

Feature Photo: cc/(TheTruthAbout)


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