By Lisa Sturtevant, PhD
There is abundant research showing that stable and affordable housing is associated with improved educational outcomes among children in low-income families. Access to affordable housing can result in fewer moves and can reduce overcrowding and other housing-related stresses. Housing assistance can help families move to neighborhoods with higher quality schools and housing investments can be part of broader, holistic community development efforts that lead to better outcomes for children.
Housing is important to educational outcomes because the school that a child attends is usually determined by where she lives. (Charter schools and school choice in some communities can weaken this link between residence location and school location.) Higher-quality schools—whether measured by test scores, teacher tenure and quality, or availability of resources—tend be located in communities where housing costs and incomes are higher. As a result, when families are segregated by income, it also means their children are segregated by school quality.
Unfortunately, income segregation is on the rise for families with children. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Southern California, between 1990 and 2010, families with children became more likely to live in neighborhoods segregated by income. Over the same period, there was no change in income segregation among families without children. This means that all of the recent increase in income segregation in the U.S. has been among families with children. We know that place matters not just for education outcomes but also for economic mobility opportunities for children, so this recent trend in income segregation among families is particularly concerning.
It is not uncommon to hear that “housing policy is school policy.” Housing programs can help lower-income families access neighborhoods with better schools, and can help alleviate the concentration of poverty in neighborhood schools. But what housing policies have worked the best to help families access good neighborhoods and good schools?
Inclusionary zoning policies can be a key way to support positive educational outcomes. There are more than 500 local inclusionary zoning (IZ) programs across the country, and many of the jurisdictions in the Washington DC region have IZ or IZ-like affordable housing programs. Research has found that affordable units produced through an IZ program are more likely to be located in low-poverty school districts than housing opportunities created through either the Housing Choice Voucher or Low-Income Housing Tax Credit programs. IZ is not a silver bullet for connecting children to high-quality schools, however, and program design matters. A RAND study has shown that Montgomery County’s MPDU program has been singularly effective at locating housing in low-poverty neighborhoods, which has led to better academic outcomes for children in those homes.
Voucher mobility programs can be effective at connecting families to neighborhoods with high-quality schools, but intensive search assistance and other supports seem necessary. Research on the federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program has generally found that while the program helps families find housing they can afford, families receiving a voucher tend to live in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. Housing search assistance and pre- and post-move counseling can make a voucher program much more successful at getting families into housing in neighborhoods with good schools and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for children. Furthermore, the most effective housing mobility programs operate at a regional scale, streamlining the porting and the administration process across jurisdictions.
The housing tax credit allocation process is another important mechanisms for expanding housing options in neighborhoods with high-quality schools. Tax credits are allocated to the states from the Federal government and a state entity (e.g. a state housing finance agency) awards credits on a competitive basis to projects that meet criteria and recommendations set out in the state’s Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP). (Nine-percent credits are awarded competitively.) The QAP and the allocation process can have a big impact on the number and types of affordable projects that get built in neighborhoods with good schools. According to a recent report by Enterprise Community Partners, states can prioritize access to good schools in their allocation processes. Maryland, for example, has the option to increase the eligible basis of projects if they offer “reasonable access to jobs, quality schools and other economic and social benefits.” But the link between housing and good schools is not often an explicit part of a state’s QAP.
These policies can help families access housing they can afford in neighborhoods that have good schools. But it will never be possible to move everyone. Just like other approaches to connecting families to opportunity, developing joint housing-school policies should be a “both/and” proposition—both investing in housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods with good schools and investing in existing communities to improve neighborhoods and schools. And no matter the policy approach, it is an important first step to ensure that people who care about schools and people who care about housing—who all care about the quality of life of families and children—are talking and working together. Housing Virginia recently convened a group to explore and improve the connections between affordable housing and schools. As we head back to school, thinking about how to do more of that collaboration is essential for ensuring all students have a successful school year!