Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.
It’s not often that 2 members of the Presidential Cabinet sit down for a morning chat before a crowd of several hundred spectators. Last week, however, at the National Building Museum’s “How Housing Matters” Conference, Secretary Shaun Donovan of HUD and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Health and Human Services did just that.
The keynote conversation, centered around the impact of the built environment on individuals’ well-being and development, set the tone for a productive day of interdisciplinary discussion and debate. Throughout the event, leading experts from around the nation discussed the significance of housing and its role in education, economic development and public health.
The Washington area’s own Montgomery County came up as a headliner during the panel on housing and education.
The Maryland county served as the setting for a recent study by Heather Schwartz, of the Rand Corporation, and based on Heather’s findings, it may be a model for other areas in search of a new and effective strategy for raising educational standards.
In her study, Heather sought to uncover the impact of economically integrative housing on academic success among elementary-aged students. In short, she was able to track the progress of a cohort of highly disadvantaged elementary students whose families, previously tenants of traditional public housing, had been randomly assigned to low-poverty areas affiliated with low-poverty elementary schools.
Over a period of five to seven years, she was able to track significant improvements in math and reading scores among the transplanted population. Furthermore, not only did the students placed in low-poverty schools outperform their moderate-poverty peer group, but they had also played catch-up to their peers. By the end of elementary school, the resettled population had narrowed the achievement gap with their non-poor peers by one-half for math and one-third for reading.
While it may come as no surprise that placing kids into more stable environments and sending them to wealthier schools has an effect on their academic performance, the rate and consistency of academic improvement among kids in the study is nothing short of impressive.
Given the success and simplicity of the approach, it is astounding how uncommon it is for US cities or counties to implement such a strategy.
I had a chance to sit down with Heather following her presentation, and one of the first things that I asked her was, “Why Montgomery County?”
As it turns out, the DC suburb is currently the single largest community to feature a policy of inclusionary zoning, without which Heather’s study could not have been possible.
Inclusionary zoning amounts to a set of laws that require developers to set aside housing for lower income families. In Montgomery’s case, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program means that approximately 15% of homes built are to be sold or rented at below-market value. More often than not, the right of first refusal to purchase the home falls to the Housing Authority. Nestled within otherwise affluent communities, these dwellings provide stable, high-quality housing and unrestricted access to community resources for families that would otherwise find themselves in poor public housing developments.
Although, as Heather pointed out, inclusionary zoning has been around since the early 1970’s and many studies have indicated the model is highly successful, relatively few communities have embraced it in the same way as Montgomery County.
While there are likely many reasons that this is the case, one concern that may arise is whether integrating schools to include variable poverty levels may actually decrease the performance of students hailing from low-poverty homes. Heather’s finding’s indicate that no such trend exists, and that the effects of mixing up an elementary school population through inclusionary zoning yields only positive effects for the economically disadvantaged students.
Of course, inclusionary zoning policies are not limited to Montgomery County. Heather is following up on her original research with a new study that will examine 11 cities and over 15,000 addresses.
For the time being, effective and enforced inclusionary zoning is predominantly a highly local movement that lacks widespread popularity. With research initiatives like Heather’s and forums like the “How Housing Matters” conference, coupled with growing, bipartisan alarm regarding the state of education and child welfare in the US, perhaps we’ll see more interest and more implementation of inclusionary zoning in the future.