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"To Improve Education, Give Housing Policy a Kick"--A Commentary by Prof. Robert Solomon

(This essay originally appeared in the September 22, 2003, edition of the Connecticut Law Tribune. It is the first in a series of weekly columns Professor Robert Solomon has undertaken to write for the Connecticut Law Tribune.)

To Improve Education, Give Housing Policy a Kick
By Robert Solomon, clinical professor of law and supervising attorney and director of clinical studies

If you want a good example of a dysfunctional public policy, try comparing our federal and state education and housing policies. Public officials talk about education policy as though schools exist in a vacuum, separate from their surrounding communities. President Bush may not want to leave any child behind when it comes to education, but he seems to have no concern about leaving the same children in slum housing in deteriorated neighborhoods. We ignore the role of federal housing policy in creating and perpetuating urban ghettos and, in Connecticut, the role of Home Rule in allowing communities to avoid regional solutions, which translates to keeping poor people out of wealthier suburban communities.

Yet, to the extent that educational studies agree on anything--they do not agree on much--virtually everyone agrees that peer group and teacher expectations are major indicators in predicting student success. The most dramatic way to equalize educational opportunity throughout our schools is to equalize housing opportunities throughout our communities. That, however, is not happening.

Housing policy is not high on the agenda in Washington or Hartford. If it were, the real response to Sheff v. O'Neil would start with moving people's place of residence, not their schools. The limited policy debate that does exist is based on myths about the housing market and Section 8 and Rental Assistance Program vouchers, with which the government subsidizes the rent of low-income tenants who lease from private landlords at market rates. Voucher programs are offered as the superior, most efficient housing programs, driven by market forces and not by over-regulated government intervention. This sounds good but, in the real world, sometimes the market works and sometimes it doesn't. In cities with tight housing markets, market forces prevent voucher-holders from competing for limited affordable housing. This is a real problem, with reports from cities across the country of unused Section 8 vouchers. The supposedly "efficient" voucher system becomes the most inefficient of all--a program that is so cheap that it stops working. As with public housing, some of the Section 8 stock is well-maintained and some is not. In a tight housing market, in many cities code-enforcement becomes lax, in an attempt to maintain as many units as possible. Some landlords have no intention of reinvesting capital in buildings in blighted neighborhoods, especially if they can continue to receive rent from the federal and state governments.

In theory, Section 8 allows people the choice of where to live, with the added benefit of decentralizing poverty and integrating the suburbs. Real choice is great; decentralizing poverty and integrating the suburbs are important goals of any successful housing policy. Unfortunately, the Section 8 and RAP programs have been remarkably unsuccessful in fostering these goals. In my own community of New Haven, a map of blighted and abandoned housing and a map of vouchers are almost identical. In other words, Section 8 and RAP recipients are "choosing" to live in the most deteriorated, lowest income and highest crime rate neighborhoods in the city. Ninety-seven percent of voucher-holders are "choosing " to live within New Haven. They are the highest rent payers in those neighborhoods, but cannot afford, or are excluded from, wealthier, safer neighborhoods. In interviews, voucher-holders report transportation, employment, day care, and discrimination as barriers to moving to the suburbs, as well as a desire to remain in familiar city neighborhoods. Mobility programs help people surmount these barriers, but there are few existing programs and for many, if not most, voucher-holders, mobility is less of a priority than the revitalization of existing neighborhoods.

There are solutions to these problems. We need to critically examine the complexity of the real world, where unintended consequences often exceed intended consequences, and where not everyone acts in a way predicted by theorists. We need to understand that cookie-cutter solutions will not work across the country--public housing authorities need the flexibility to use public housing and Section 8 in creative ways that make sense based on the housing markets in their communities, without being restricted by a Congressionally-mandated, one-housing-policy-fits-all program and with the ability to try regional solutions. We need to expand mobility programs, but not at the expense of the public and private housing of urban neighborhoods. We need to understand that housing often includes supportive services to allow the residents to succeed.

In the long run, we may even learn that setting a practical and workable housing policy will result in better schools.