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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

What Would it Take to Foster Residential Outcomes that Support School Integration, and Vice Versa?

The deep ties between housing and education that foster segregation, and strategies for overcoming those ties, are the focus of four new papers released today. Originally presented at our April 2017 symposium, A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality, the papers not only explore the linked histories of housing and education in America but also discuss policies that simultaneously address housing and school segregation in ways that might foster more inclusive outcomes.

The Interdependence of Housing and School Segregation by Anurima Bhargava, the panel’s moderator, provides an overview of the ways in which “housing and education in America have long been inextricably and intricately linked.” Most notably, because of the longstanding practice of assigning students to their neighborhood school, segregated housing is usually accompanied by segregated schools. Bhargava contends that despite a series of efforts to address key issues, residential and school segregation have long been, and remain, mutually reinforcing forces. Moreover, since funding for schools is often tied to property taxes, racially segregated schools in areas of concentrated poverty often have fewer resources and higher rates of teacher turnover, two factors that undermine the quality of those schools. This, in turn, makes it even harder for those schools to support the large number of lower-income students who experience residential insecurity, which can have a significant impact on both student engagement and educational attainment. This situation, she concludes, is unfortunate because schools could be “an important anchor and catalyst for change to break down the barriers of residential segregation” and, in doing so, be at the forefront of efforts to support healthy and thriving communities, promote democracy, and strengthen America’s future.

Disrupting the Reciprocal Relationship Between Housing and School Segregation by Philip Tegeler and Michael Hilton notes that “while housing and school segregation are currently linked in a mutually reinforcing cycle, there are a number of policy options which, if pursued in earnest, could do much to dissolve the relationship and move toward greater degrees of integration on both fronts.” Tegeler and Hilton begin with an extensive overview of the ways in which current laws, policies, and practices mutually reinforce housing and school segregation. They move on to a review of promising strategies in several broad areas, including: creating student assignment policies that take race and socioeconomic patterns into account, decoupling residential location from school district attendance, preventing school district secessions, developing more equitable school financing systems, establishing more nuanced school rating systems for use by realtors and online marketing platforms, and prioritizing school integration when developing policies related to housing tax credits, vouchers, and zoning. They conclude by noting that “concerted efforts at every level of government are needed to overcome the stark separation between housing and school policies (and policymakers).” They add that, while the Obama administration took initial steps to undo this separation, given the abrupt change in direction at the federal level, supporters of coordinated housing and school integration policy will need to focus on state and local advocacy and innovation for the foreseeable future.

The Social and Economic Value of Intentional Integration Programs in Oak Park, IL by J. Robert Breymaier is a detailed discussion of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which since 1972 has been working ensure that there is “meaningful and lasting racial diversity in Oak Park,” a village of about 50,000 people located next to the West Side of Chicago. In addition to a variety of efforts to advance fair housing goals (particularly in rental housing), the Center has also promoted school integration by supporting policies such as redrawing school assignment zones for the village’s elementary and creating two diverse middle schools that feed into the village’s sole high school. Combined, these efforts have “transformed Oak Park from a 99 percent white community to a community that reflects the diversity of its metropolitan region,” Breymaier contends. Moreover, the efforts have produced a more harmonious and a more prosperous community that not only “exhibits many of the qualities that fair housing and racial justice advocates hope to achieve elsewhere” but, he contends, can also serve as a replicable model for other communities.

Addressing the Patterns of Resegregation in Urban and Suburban Context: How to Stabilize Integrated Schools and Communities Amid Metro Migrations by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, Diana Cordova-Cobo, and Douglas Ready notes that, while a large body of research has documented the patterns, degree, and effects of racial segregation, what is missing from this literature is a more nuanced understanding of the process by which segregation is reproduced. To fill this gap, they conducted studies in a gentrifying part of New York City and in the increasingly diverse suburbs in Long Island’s Nassau County, adjacent to New York City. They find that in both locales, homebuyers and parents base extremely important life decisions on “word of mouth” reputations of schools and communities, even when that information is not consistent with seemingly more reliable quantitative data about those places. Moreover, they add, these decisionmaking processes often create a self-fulfilling prophecy that is leading to racial resegregation in many suburban towns, as well as reduced property values in communities with more Blacks and Hispanics. They conclude by noting that “policymakers and advocates who want to address racial inequality in American housing and schools must appreciate the iterative relationship between intangible and tangible factors in the housing-school nexus.” Doing so, they explain, would require concerted efforts that would involve everything from student assignment policies to examining whether current accountability policies in the field of education exacerbate segregation and inequality.