Only a few things in life are certain: Death, Republicans trying to cut taxes on the wealthy, and the fact that people opposing new housing development will bring up the possibility of overcrowding the local school system.
The fears trotted out in the face of proposed affordable housing developments rarely come to pass. One of our most popular articles describes how the claims made about four specific developments were evaluated after they were built and found to have either not happened, or happened to a much smaller extent than feared. “Many of the common fears about affordable housing are either overstated or simply wrong,” that article concluded, but it called for more systematic study.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has delivered with a study that examines the relationship of new housing development and school enrollment in 234 public school districts across Massachusetts. It found they are not correlated at all:
We find that the conventional wisdom that links housing production with inevitable enrollment growth no longer holds true. At the district level, we observe no meaningful correlation between housing production rates and enrollment growth over a six-year period. While it is true that schoolchildren occupying new housing units may cause a marginal change in enrollment, they are one small factor among many. In cities and towns with the most rapid housing production, enrollment barely budged; and most districts with the largest student increases saw very little housing unit change.
There are too many other factors, including changing demographics and bidding up of prices in desirable school systems, that are affecting enrollment numbers. Housing production just isn’t registering.
Is Evidence Enough?
This is good news for housing advocates. Who wouldn’t want an evidence-based rebuttal to NIMBY fears (or what they claim to fear when what they actually fear is not acceptable to admit in public)?
However, I have my own fear. The idea of “more housing units will equal more students” has such an intuitive logic to it (after all, families with children who will go to the public schools could move in), and confirmation bias is very strong. I therefore worry that this will be one of those cases where trying to win a point merely by presenting contradictory evidence might just cause people to dig in their heels. Of course, hopefully decision makers will be more open to evidence than those who are trying to influence the decision makers, but that’s not a guarantee.
It seems to me like this study probably shouldn’t be trotted out during particular permitting fights without being paired with the details of the situation of a particular school system and its capacity, and the particular housing market. For example, is more school enrollment even actually a bad thing? (Many suburbs are seeing marked declines in enrollment, says the MAPC study.)
This is probably also a really good time to review best practices for engaging in high-conflict conversations—leading with values statements, using language that brings people in rather than reinforcing their ideas, shifting the overall narrative.
Here’s hoping that used carefully, these fascinating findings can help smooth the way for more housing where it is needed.