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Children Are the Casualties in New Yorkers’ Daily Struggle for Space

Overcrowding is common in the neighborhood. Ms. Zhao and her family “were trying their best to survive, to make rent, to have every room occupied,” said Alexa Aviles, the City Council representative in Sunset Park. The city has turned away from these realities, she told me, “even as it knows that overcrowding is problematic.”

To some extent that is vastly understating things. A few years ago, a fire in another apartment building in Sunset Park revealed the scope and hardship of the situation, given that there were roughly 160 people living in 40 small units. Those families are now dispersed throughout the city, their community and social networks having dissolved.

The housing shortage, and the fact that many accommodations for the poor are in terribly maintained buildings, throw that particular scenario into high and troubling relief. Even on a less catastrophic scale, the harm of crowded living, especially for children, is well documented. Last year, the Community Service Society of New York, a 180-year-old organization devoted to promoting economic equality, found that more than a quarter of city families with children were living in overcrowded conditions. Rates for immigrant households were even higher.

A decade or so ago, the journal Social Science Research set out to look at the ways in which crowded housing affected children’s academic achievement, health and behavior in part by using data collected from a survey of families in Los Angeles. It found that living in a crowded house or apartment harmed children in a variety of ways even when controlling for socioeconomic factors. Previous research had shown that crowded living spaces led adults to withdraw psychologically, created strained relationships between parents and children, and made for a higher incidence of children being left back in school.

Nicholas’s parents chose Divino Niño because it was affordable in a city where child care, like housing, notoriously is not. So many terrible things that happen in New York are the result of these conjoined emergencies, what social scientists call “a crisis of social reproduction.”

“The daily work of keeping a household going and keeping members fed and healthy is increasingly difficult,” as David Madden of the London School of Economics, put it. And for the most vulnerable, the most ordinary transactions all too often become deadly.

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