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October 15, 2014

Five reasons why educators should care about housing policy (and vice versa)

October 15, 2014

Earlier this year, I asked a mayoral aide in a major American city where student housing ranks on their list of priorities.

“Outside of the top 20,” she answered.

While this may not be true for school districts across the country, the takeaway is clear: education agencies have their hands full. As the great educator Tina Turner once mused: What’s (housing) got to do with it?

In an article published by the Urban Institute today, my coauthor Matthew Johnson and I take a close look at a promising program in Tacoma, WA that tries to strengthen the relationship between housing and education supports for struggling families.

The article tells the story of Chrystal Olson and her family’s experience in the McCarver Elementary Special Housing Program. This promising initiative represents a concerted effort by the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) and the Tacoma School District to work together to support homeless families with young children.

Housing and education is not the most natural relationship.

Why did the Tacoma Housing Authority enter into the partnership? THA Executive Director Michael Mirra tells us that the agency wants to support families in a way that is “transforming and temporary,” realizing that education is an essential part of helping children disrupt family cycles of poverty.

And what was in it for the school district? Well, McCarver Elementary School had seen stratospheric student turnover rates (as high as 179 percent in 2006) and teachers and administrators wanted to find ways to support greater stability for its students and schools.

The program requires investments from both the agencies and the families. Participants like Chrystal and her children receive significant subsidized housing supports as long as the family fulfills several requirements, including keeping the kids at McCarver Elementary, participating in their academic program, and working with caseworkers to put together a success plan for the family and stay on track.

Some of these programmatic elements—especially asking families to stay in a struggling neighborhood—are controversial and require research into their effectiveness, and the program is currently undergoing a third-party evaluation to demonstrate its overall efficacy. Nonetheless, the program clearly shows the potential of housing authority-education system partnerships and different forms they might take.

It is an area worth greater consideration and attention, including from education and housing policymakers. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Housing instability impacts a range of child educational outcomes. Hypermobile students can experience difficulties with classroom participation and academics, sometimes leading to repeating grades or failing to complete school. Housing instability has also been associated with other poor education outcomes such as absenteeism, higher chances of dropping out, and social and behavioral problems.                
  2. High rates of student mobility can negatively affect teachers’ ability to teach effectively. Research has found that new students entering schools throughout the year can disrupt whole classrooms and lead to worse academic outcomes for all students, not just those who move 
  3. The number of children living in unstable housing situations is on the rise. About 1.3 million public school students were homeless during the 2012–13 school year, both an 8 percent increase from the previous year and a new record high, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. The more children struggling with housing stability, the more schools and classrooms will struggle with student mobility.
  4. Housing quality can affect child development, including educational outcomes. Poor housing may have health hazards that adversely impact learning. The most direct example is how the presence of lead paint can significantly impede cognitive development in young children. Other factors, such as overcrowding, may also have a negative effect.
  5. Housing may serve as a platform for supports and services for families. Because housing providers connect with youth where they live rather than at school, in a medical clinic, or in a criminal justice or workforce development setting, they are well positioned to initiate place-based strategies that can also improve educational outcomes. Providers are also in a good position to engage families before children start school, during the crucial years between ages 0 to 4.

In the end, schools and housing are inextricably linked and thinking about housing as a part of community development and educational outcomes is a new frontier that deserves greater thought and attention.

Photo of a home in Tacoma, Washington. Matt Johnson/ Urban Institute

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