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Community Development and Fair Housing Approaches to Education Equity

January 18, 2013

David Zisser

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Conversations about educational equity often ignore the critical relationship between sustainable communities and sustainable schools.  As a result, education advocates frequently miss opportunities to integrate education reform into broader strategies to build healthy communities.  The goals of community development and fair housing advocates are shared by education advocates: improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income and minority children.  And while our approaches may differ, our shared vision offers a meaningful opportunity to challenge the residential segregation which undermines positive life outcomes for some of our most vulnerable families. 

Residential Segregation and the Geography of Opportunity

While education reformers tend to look at curricula, teacher quality, school funding, and other factors in the schools, community developers and fair housing practitioners look at factors in communities

More specifically, they attempt to address the “geography of opportunity” – the fact that where a child lives is central to his or her chances for success.  Research shows that mostly poor and minority children live in under-invested communities and attend poor performing schools, while mostly white children in middle- and high-income families live in communities with amenities and resources, which include good schools. 

This geography of opportunity is an outcome of residential segregation – or housing patterns that result in both racially and socio-economically segregated communities and schools.  The causes of residential segregation are historical and include  factors such as discriminatory federal housing, lending and highway policies and “white flight,”  and continue as a result of local exclusionary zoning practices and  soaring land values.

Challenges to Educational Achievement

Where a child lives should not limit the educational opportunities available to her.  Yet residential segregation and the related lack of housing affordability in “high-opportunity” places continues to impact the quality of a child’s education and increase educational disparities by socio-economic status and race in multiple ways. 

  • Lack of Diversity: The U.S. Supreme Court itself has held that diversity is a legitimate educational goal. Students who attend school with children who are different from themselves benefit from these interactions and gain perspectives that they can bring with them into adulthood. School systems should be supported in their efforts to pursue the educational benefits of diversity through magnet programs, voluntary student assignment plans, and inter-district transfer.
  • Housing and Job Instability: Rising rents, lack of jobs, and stagnant or unstable wages force many low-income families to move more often than other families, or to live in housing that is over-crowded or of poor quality. As a result, parents may not have time or energy to help with homework or be involved in school activities. In addition, children may miss school or change schools. Access to fair housing and meaningful employment contribute to family stability and school success.
  • Crime and Lack of Community Resources: Low-income communities are often less safe and experience more crime than mixed-income communities. They are less likely to have parks and other safe places for youth to spend their time after school, and are more likely to lack access to healthy food. As a result, children may experience fear of violence, get involved in unproductive activities, and lack healthy stimuli and adequate nutrition.
  • Lower Tax Base: In many low-income communities, the lower property tax base means less funding for schools, and poor families do not have the resources to raise additional funding through booster programs. The results are sometimes appalling: rat infestations, dilapidated facilities, out-dated textbooks, poor teacher quality, over-crowded classrooms, and generally fewer resources, such as music and arts programs and advanced placement classes.


Our colleagues in the community development and fair housing fields have been exploring solutions that address these patterns and inequities which have a devastating impact on our public schools.  There is, however, some disagreement between practitioners in the fair housing and community development fields about how to effectively integrate communities, de-concentrate poverty, and create equal educational opportunities. 

Fair housing advocates concentrate on providing low-income families with the choice and ability to move to an already-high-opportunity place with good schools.  They push for “mobility” programs that give families vouchers and counseling that can help families pay for and find market-rate housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods.  They also advocate for the construction of affordable housing in these same neighborhoods. 

Community developers, on the other hand, focus on making low-income communities healthier and resource-rich, with good job opportunities, access to transit, parks and recreation centers, child care, health care, fresh food, and other important assets.  Affordable housing is an essential component; it creates stability for families and prevents displacement of low-income families as the improving community gentrifies (and diversifies).

We believe that true choice requires both approaches. 

Strategies and Solutions

Educational opportunities can be strengthened by policies to support sustainable communities and further fair housing.  Community development and fair housing advocates utilize a range of policy and planning strategies to improve and integrate communities.  They include:

  • Local inclusionary zoning ordinances that require a percentage of market-rate housing developments to be affordable to low- and moderate-income families in exchange for certain incentives, such as additional density (more market-rate units);
  • Fair share policies that ensure that all cities in a region provide an equitable amount of affordable housing;
  • State and federal incentives to develop Low-Income Housing Tax Credit projects in high-opportunity areas and include “affirmative marketing”;
  • Improving public transit so that students can attend schools of their choice; and
  • Housing mobility programs strong for voucher holders that include counseling and assistance.

Fair housing and community development lawyers also utilize legal strategies. 

For instance, fair housing lawyers use the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to fight discrimination in the housing and lending markets, to challenge exclusionary zoning decisions and discriminatory development and redevelopment actions that displace low income and minority households, and to require cities receiving federal housing dollars to “affirmatively further fair housing” by analyzing impediments to fair housing choice and adopting policies which promote residential integration. 

Community development lawyers often support community-based organizations and coalitions to negotiate legally enforceable community benefits agreements (CBAs) that require affordable housing contributions from developers involved in large projects that will result in gentrification, in exchange for the community’s support of the project.

Conclusion and Next Steps

No single approach offers a complete solution.  As long as our communities continue to be segregated, it is imperative that schools in high-poverty areas continue to receive additional resources and funding to help bridge the gap.  But no amount of additional school funding will address the more systemic disparities in communities surrounding these schools. 

Advocates in the education reform, community development, and fair housing fields will strengthen their work by getting out of their silos and instead strategically collaborating to find long-term, sustainable, and effective solutions to create more diverse and equitable communities and schools.  The Educational Opportunities, Community Development, and Fair Housing Projects at the Lawyers’ Committee are doing just that and will provide updates about the goals, strategies, and outcomes of this collaboration. 

For more information on the connections between housing, community development and education, check out these resources:

David Zisser is a staff attorney in the Lawyers’ Committee’s Community Development Project.  Education equity motivated his pursuit of a graduate degree in City Planning (with a focus on Housing and Community Development).  Through coursework, teaching youth, and research with the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley, he explored and wrote about the connections between housing, transportation, and education.  He is excited to collaborate with the Educational Opportunities Project.

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