Turning a Blind Eye on the Reciprocal Relationship Between Housing Cost and School Rankings

By Kimberly Hall and Philip Tegeler of PRRAC

In metropolitan areas where school attendance is strictly defined by neighborhood, or narrowly drawn school district boundaries, decisions about housing cost and density, the location of multifamily rental housing, and the distribution of government assisted housing has an inexorable impact on patterns of school enrollment based on race and income.

The greater the racial and economic disparities across school districts in a region, the greater the fluctuation in housing value, rental rates and neighborhood racial instability.[1] The ranking of schools based solely on overall test scores, deterring higher income families from purchasing in “lower ranked” school zones. Real estate marketing practices that promote housing sales based on local school achievement scores (which are primarily reflective of student demographics) reinforce segregation by bidding up housing prices for these “higher performing” districts and schools.[2]

In spite of their deep and obvious connections, housing and school policy have evolved separately, with little attention to their mutually reinforcing impacts. In Congress, committees with jurisdiction over housing and education are completely separate, mirrored by separate federal agencies that have had virtually no policy interaction until very recently. This same pattern of policy separation is repeated at the state and local level, with separate legislative committees and separate executive departments, so that finally at the local community level it is rare for a school board to have any contact with the local housing department, zoning board, or public housing authority.

They are instead well designed to work together to maintain racial hierarchy and separation and to protect the privileges of the dominant groups in our society, which partly explains why their obvious connections have been submerged.  But by acknowledging these mechanisms of separation, and working to disrupt them, we can continue to make incremental progress toward a more inclusive and integrated society.

In its 2015 “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” planning rule[3], the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) formally recognized that access to quality educational opportunity is an important aspect of fair housing.  In its “Assessment of Fair Housing” tool to be used by all jurisdictions receiving significant HUD funding, HUD requires its grantees to consider:

“The geographic relationship of proficient schools to housing, and the policies that govern attendance, are important components of fair housing choice. The quality of schools is often a major factor in deciding where to live and school quality is also a key component of economic mobility. Relevant factors to consider include whether proficient schools are clustered in a portion of the jurisdiction or region, the range of housing opportunities close to proficient schools, and whether the jurisdiction has policies that enable students to attend a school of choice regardless of place of residence. Policies to consider include, but are not limited to: inter-district transfer programs, limits on how many students from other areas a particular school will accept, and enrollment lotteries that do not provide access for the majority of children.”[4]


At the local level, one positive example of housing and education policy collaboration began in Richmond, Virginia in 2015, with a series of meetings organized by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Housing Virginia and faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University. The meetings were designed initially to bring together all the key policy stakeholders at the regional level – city and suburban school board members, a former city superintendent, directors of the city and regional housing authorities and the city housing department, nonprofit advocacy leaders, and key representatives from the state education and housing departments. The meetings worked out a series of planning documents with goals, obstacles and strategies for collaboration. This collaboration has continued as efforts have moved forward to develop regional magnet schools for the Richmond area,[5] and bring together housing and school officials for joint planning.[6]

If renters or homebuyers understand that wherever they live within the district, there will be relatively similar levels of need, racial integration, and equitable funding, there will be less “shopping” for particular school assignment zones, and housing demand and affordability will be distributed more evenly across the district.


[1] Owens, 2017

[2] Siegel-Hawley, 2016; Wells, 2015

[3] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2015.

[4] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2017.

[5] Siegel-Hawley, forthcoming, 2017.

[6] Housing Virginia, forthcoming, 2017.