For several decades community development corporations (CDCs) around the United States have been giving new life to urban neighborhoods by developing housing and other needed facilities. Concurrently, in many of these neighborhoods large-scale school construction programs are taking place. In states as diverse as California, New Jersey and Ohio, state governments and local school districts are spending billions of dollars to rebuild their educational infrastructure.
The actors engaged in school construction, housing development and community revitalization are pursuing activities that define their respective missions and benefit their constituencies and the community at large. Yet they often work with little knowledge of each other’s efforts and, at times, work at cross-purposes that undermine the good work that each is doing. Some school construction projects have resulted in large-scale displacement of lower-income households, and in a few cases school siting decisions have endangered housing recently constructed or renovated by a CDC. At a minimum, opportunities to optimize the use of scarce building sites and limited funding, and to create better outcomes for the community as a whole, are being lost.
Conversely, effective collaborations between school planners, CDCs and others engaged in neighborhood revitalization offer significant opportunities for integrating schools and housing in ways that promote synergy and foster the revitalization and redevelopment of the entire community. Such collaboration can minimize disruption to the lives and homes of existing residents and offer potential savings that can make both school construction and housing development more cost effective.
Housing and Academic Success
Research supports claims that poorly maintained, overcrowded facilities contribute to neighborhood decline, and that new or well-maintained facilities help revitalize neighborhoods. The effect of neighborhood improvements on the community can be maximized through careful planning. But the concept of “revitalization” must be carefully considered. When neighborhoods are “improved” at the expense of existing residents (who often suffer displacement) then neighborhood revitalization is little more than a shell game, shuffling unwanted people from place to place, improving the condition of a locality rather than its people.
Research has attempted to ascertain the factors that facilitate academic success. One of these is housing affordability. When a family faces a crisis of housing affordability their living conditions are often overcrowded, and they frequently have to move. Such housing instability has a negative effect on academic performance. In a 2003 article published in Shelterforce, Chester Hartman summed it up well. He says, “research indicates that students who are highly mobile acquire basic skills at a slower pace, which ultimately increases their chances of school failure and dropout. Behavioral and interpersonal problems also arise. Students who have moved more than three times over a period of six years can fall a full academic year behind their peers.” And what are the causes of this mobility? Hartman attributes the principal cause to be the lack of housing affordability.
The relationship between housing instability and academic achievement is one of the most compelling arguments for coordinating the development of affordable housing with school facilities construction. In a 2002 report by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, Hartman noted that “smaller schools and classrooms, better trained teachers, better building and equipment and other essential improvements can have only a minimal positive impact if the classroom is something of a revolving door, with high proportions of the students leaving and arriving during the school year and from school year to school year.”
Connie Chung, author of a 2002 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, summed up the benefits of coordinating school construction with affordable housing. “Coordinating affordable housing with public-school development can reduce the negative effects of the involuntary displacement of residents. This approach also considers the coordination of affordable housing and public schools as a strategy for mixed-income developments. Furthermore, coordinating schools and housing is a way to concentrate resources to create a market for affordable-housing projects and thus reduce high student mobility rates in troubled schools.”
In May, the National Housing Institute, in conjunction with the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, convened in Los Angeles with a group of 25 practitioners from around the country to explore strategies for promoting effective collaboration between school districts and CDCs.
Community development corporations, regional CDC networks and other community-based organizations, school districts, local governments and state agencies in a number of cities and states have become aware of the need to link school construction, housing and community development. They have begun to forge creative collaborations designed to address mutual goals and to establish the groundwork for sound and consistent policies in this area, which include:
• Creating school facilities that can be used for both academic and community-serving purposes
• Designing schools that are physically better integrated into the community and that function as an integral part of the community’s social and organizational fabric
• Creating opportunities for additional housing development, particularly mixed-income housing and housing for families displaced by school projects
• Enhancing the value and quality of housing being developed in the neighborhood by integrating it with school and open space projects
• Creating economical school construction projects and saving scarce school construction funds by leveraging those funds with housing resources
Some collaborations have already been undertaken in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. In some communities there is joint construction of housing and school facilities on a single site and also of a school with housing on adjacent parcels, which enhances the setting for the school and enables new housing to benefit from its proximity. There are also agreements between some of Los Angeles’s CDCs and school districts to provide for relocation of households displaced by school construction within the neighborhood, and to engage in joint planning of school projects, including site selection and site planning.
After a day and a half of intensive discussions, several strategies were identified, including making equity a key development principle if using school planning to revitalize communities; finding ways for school construction, affordable housing and community revitalization to complement each other; assessing the effect of revitalization and school construction on racial and ethnic integration; and recognizing that schools are an engine of local economic development and, therefore, can help build strong communities. Some attendees are currently working to identify legislative and regulatory changes that might make it easier to promote schools that are more effectively tied to their communities, as well as to identify obstacles for collaboration and strategies for communicating the advantages of collaboration.
In a climate where school officials are under increased pressure to produce positive results, and local officials are trying to reduce costs that lead to higher taxes, both CDCs and school facilities planners can advance community goals more effectively if they share resources and experience. Both can identify assets and obstacles to the kind of community revitalization that advances human development in step with improvements to the community’s physical assets. This potential synergy is often sacrificed for pragmatic reasons, but more and more CDCs and planners are recognizing that failing to work together in a complementary fashion shortchanges the community in the long run.
“Connecting Public Schools to Community Development,” by Connie Chung.
Community and Banking, Winter 2005.
Using Public Schools as Community-Development Tools: Strategies for Community-Based Developers, by Connie Chung. Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, 2002.
“Left Behind,” by Chester Hartman.
Shelterforce, #128, March/April 2003.
21st Century School Fund
University of Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools