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Housing and educational outcomes

Investments in housing and neighborhood conditions can have significant impacts on children’s educational outcomes.  This brief summarizes rigorous research showing that housing and neighborhoods shape children’s educational outcomes. It further outlines how local governments can improve educational outcomes through housing and neighborhood investments and policies.
Housing and educational outcomes (little girl writing at school desk)

At least five aspects of housing shape educational outcomes: affordability, stability of tenure, structural quality, neighborhood characteristics, and management and on-site services.  This brief provides only a cursory review of the evidence of how housing enhances children’s learning, but the studies listed below provide a more thorough summary.

Housing Affordability

While we have made great strides in improving housing quality, this has been accompanied by widespread reductions in affordability. Living in an affordable home can increase disposable family income, which often leads to improvements in educational outcomes for children in low-income families. With additional income, parents feel less stress, can give more time and attention to parenting, and are able to invest more money into enrichment activities.

Empirical evidence shows that additional income boosts children’s outcomes.  For instance, evidence from the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which is targeted to poor and near-poor families, suggests that an additional $1,000 in income increases children’s combined math and reading test scores. Additional research indicates that children whose families receive vouchers perform better in school, even when they use those vouchers to lease in-place.

Take Action

Support dedicated affordable housing or tenant-based housing subsidies. Housing subsidies and dedicated affordable housing can improve educational outcomes by enhancing affordability. Recent experimental research suggests that rental subsidies improve the quality of homes that families occupy, reduce their housing costs and their chance of becoming homeless, and allow them to spend more money on children.  All of these impacts are likely, in turn, to enhance educational outcomes.  Local housing officials might consider increasing support for tenant-based rental assistance or different strategies to support place-based subsidized housing.

Stability

Stable housing helps families and children avoid the disruptive effects of moving to new schools and communities.  A large body of work finds that students who move residences less frequently experience better academic outcomes, and those who move due to factors outside the family’s control appear to  have particularly detrimental outcomes for children. Even absent actual moves, insecure housing tenure may cause both parents and children to feel acute levels of stress and make it more difficult for children to focus on school.

Take Action

Expand the supply of dedicated affordable housing or tenant-based subsidies. Expanding the supply of dedicated, affordable housing can help to enhance the stability of families by providing them with homes offering a predictable rent. Similarly, tenant-based subsidies help families remain comfortably in their homes even as market rents rise.

Invest in tenant protections. Cities might consider adopting or expanding efforts to protect tenants from eviction, provide legal assistance, and offer emergency assistance, which can help families stay in their homes and communities. This further allows children to stay in their same schools with such continuity being demonstrated to aid educational outcomes.  Of course, in some circumstances, evictions of disruptive or uncooperative residents can help to ensure a safe and vital community.

Allow children to remain in their same schools. Local officials might work with their counterparts in the Department of Education to adopt policies that allow children to remain in their same schools even as their families move to a new neighborhood.

Housing Conditions

Over the past few decades, the quality of housing in the United States has risen considerably, while the incidence of physical deficiencies has fallen. People in the United States are living in larger and less crowded homes with fewer physical deficiencies. But many families with children, especially low-income families, continue to live in crowded homes that are in very poor condition. Research suggests that moving to larger and higher quality units would improve the well-being and academic performance of these children (Klebanov et al., 1997; Mayer, 1997; Currie & Yelowitz, 2000; Leventhal & Newman, 2010; Coley et al., 2013).  Children may be better able to focus on homework when living in structurally sound homes, especially if they have adequate space for studying.  They are also likely to be healthier. The 1978 federal lead paint ban led directly to well-documented improvements in both the quality of housing and children’s cognitive functioning. Research shows an association between children’s asthma and exposure to allergens, such as dust mites, mold, and cockroaches. Ensuring healthy homes would therefore boost children’s school attendance and learning, on top of their direct benefits to a family’s physical wellbeing.

Take Action

Reform housing code rules and enforcement. Several of these improvements can be achieved through strengthening both the substance and the enforcement of regulations. Local regulations can significantly shape children’s living conditions, improving child health and contributing to a supportive learning environment.  

Lead abatement. Local officials can do more to enforce rules to protect families and children from lead exposure. Rochester, New York, for instance, passed an ordinance requiring regular inspections of most pre-1978 rental housing as a requirement to receipt of a certificate of occupancy. The policy change has already resulted in reduced blood lead levels in the county.

Incentives for housing repairs.  Local officials should consider adopting homeowner rehabilitation assistance programs that offer subsidies to homeowners to help them make repairs to their homes. These programs can be useful for improving home energy efficiency, reducing exposure to toxic substances, and other essential improvements that can improve the quality of living and property values of program participants. Similarly, they might adopt tax incentives for the maintenance and rehabilitation of small properties.

Policy makers should also recognize that building and housing regulations can increase housing costs and even lead to evictions, with not all of them necessarily leading to educational improvements. This is especially true in the case of density restrictions. Most cities in the United States impose minimum unit sizes, dictate the number of occupants who can live in a housing unit, and restrict the number of dwelling units that can be constructed on a lot. Such regulations yield uncertain benefits for children while clearly raising housing costs, which leave families with fewer resources to invest in education-enhancing goods and services.

Neighborhood Characteristics

Neighborhoods determine access to schools, after-school activities, and social networks.  Neighborhoods also shape how safe children feel outside of their homes.  Emerging research shows that children who are insulated from violence perform better in both cognitive performance and on standardized tests.  Further, we now have strong, experimental evidence that low-income children who move to lower poverty neighborhoods when they are young are more likely to attend college than their counterparts who stay in high poverty areas.

Take Action

Invest in school and neighborhood improvements. Housing practitioners should look beyond their buildings, especially when they are located in communities where schools are performing at low levels.  They should advocate for school improvements and potentially partner with education policy experts and practitioners to make physical investments in school facilities.  Further, there is strong evidence that neighborhoods affect long-run educational outcomes as well.  As noted above, there is particularly strong evidence that exposure to violence undermines children’s academic performance.  Therefore, housing practitioners should look to partner with their colleagues in law enforcement, parks, and community development to ensure that neighborhoods provide safe streets and recreational resources for youth.

Combat housing market discrimination.  Research shows that though housing market discrimination is less prevalent than it once was, it persists in more subtle forms.  Such discrimination often prevents families from reaching neighborhoods and communities with high-performing schools and safe environments, thus worsening inequality in childhood outcomes.  Local officials might consider providing fair housing education to landlords and realtors, increasing efforts to enforce existing fair housing laws, and adopting source of income discrimination laws that ban discrimination against applicants using housing choice voucherOfficially known as "Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher". It is the largest and most sought after housing program in America. Section 8 HCVs are managed by various public housing agencies (most commonly referred to as housing authorities), which falls under the supervision of HUD. Program participants typically pay 30% of the rent, and the rest is covered by the HCV.s or other rental subsidies.

Create and preserve affordable housing in resource-rich neighborhoods: City officials might also invest in creating and preserving affordable housing units for families in resource-rich neighborhoods that offer high-performing schools, safe streets, and ample recreational opportunities for youth.

Invest in efforts to encourage mobility for voucher holders. Local officials may also want to expand efforts to help voucher holders reach a broader set of neighborhoods, with strategies including recruiting landlords in high-cost areas, providing mobility counseling to voucher holders, and increasing voucher payment standards in high-cost areas.

Cost effectiveness. Though improving housing costs money, in many cases the costs associated with improved home quality may be offset by the value of improved educational outcomes.  One challenge is that the housing sector often bears the costs of such improvements, while the educational sector and the broader economy enjoy the benefits. This imbalance is often called the “wrong pocket problem.” Policymakers should break down barriers across sectors and invest in housing improvements that will generate significant educational benefits.

Partnerships. The housing sector cannot improve schools and neighborhoods on its own.  Housing policymakers and practitioners should work closely with educational officials and organizations to make improvements to schools, parks, and public spaces that enhance their usability and safety.  This coordination is especially critical as new housing is created to ensure that local schools have the capacity to effectively serve the new families moving into an area.

One noteworthy instance of this policy is the partnership between Eden Housing and the Partnership for Children and Youth, who, together, have developed on-site after school programming led by trained staff to help support student learning and bridge the gap between resident-parents and local school staff.

Effective Management and Complementary On-Site Services

How housing is managed can also shape educational outcomes.  Good managers quickly address any structural problems that may jeopardize health and safety, such as leaks, darkened stairwells, or broken bannisters.  Managers can also set and enforce clear rules to restrict unwanted behavior.  Further, good managers can also offer on-site services and activities that enhance resident wellbeing, such as tutoring opportunities to support children’s learning.

Take Action

Encourage good management practices. Housing officials might consider offering or supporting training programs for small property owners and housing managers to help them effectively address building maintenance, enforce rules of conduct, as well as support youth development.  On-site services for youths, such as the provision of quality afterschool programming, can also be critical to keep children engaged and learning outside of the classroom.

Links to research summaries:

Links to promising initiatives:

Links to resource library (CoP Partners):

See also:
Policy objective: Improving educational outcomes for children
Profiles of Local Housing Strategies
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