Integrative Housing Policies Can Improve Education Opportunities for Low-Income Kids

Low-income students across the United States attend schools with lower average test scores than students whose families have higher incomes. These families are often unable to access high-performing schools because housing is expensive in the neighborhoods where these schools are located. In the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas, housing is 2.4 times as expensive in neighborhoods with high-performing schools than in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. Since Hispanic and black families are more likely to have low incomes, this housing landscape perpetuates segregation of racial and ethnic minority families into high-poverty neighborhoods and schools. Many studies have found that increases in poverty and racial and ethnic segregation in schools are associated with inferior student performance. In short, the doors to academic success are closed early for many low-income and minority children.

Housing policy has demonstrated potential to help alleviate these disparities. An increasing number of jurisdictions with high housing costs are using inclusionary zoning to increase the supply and geographic dispersion of affordable housing. In cases where these policies are implemented through mandatory ordinances, they typically require that new developments of at least a minimum size include a specified percentage of affordable units alongside market rate units.

This type of policy can help improve academic performance for children in low-income families. Inclusionary zoning has succeeded in many cases in enabling families that receive housing assistance to send their children to high-performing local schools. A study examining Montgomery County, Maryland’s inclusionary zoning policy found that, of children living in affordable units produced through inclusionary zoning, those who attended relatively affluent local elementary schools performed considerably better in reading and math than those who attended schools with higher poverty rates. Furthermore, this policy was more effective in closing the existing gap in test scores between low income students and district averages than increasing funding for school-based reforms in the less-advantaged schools in the district (and less costly).

Through increasing school diversity, inclusionary zoning can indirectly benefit students from higher income families, too. Montgomery County implemented the nation’s first such program in 1976, which, having produced almost 11,000 affordable units, is also the largest. This program has enabled low income families of many races and ethnicities to obtain housing throughout the county. The school district has maintained high levels of achievement along with an increasingly diverse student population. I grew up in Montgomery County and experienced firsthand how all students can benefit from socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity. Attending diverse public schools taught me to be open-minded, curious, and accepting of human differences.

For me, these benefits were icing on the cake. My parents had the economic resources and knowledge of available options to ensure that I would go to good schools no matter where we lived. Others are not so fortunate, but there is great potential to give more low-income kids access to high-performing schools by expanding inclusionary zoning programs.