How Housing Matters to Education: From Research to Practice

Many aspects of housing – from quality to location to transience – can have a significant impact on the educational outcomes of children. A day-long roundtable on the impact of housing on education and children hosted by the Urban Institute in 2014 convened a number of researchers to discuss their wide-ranging findings on the topic.

Ianna Kachoris, Program Officer for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Roundtable participants ranged from housing researchers to local and federal policymakers. Introduced by Ianna Kachoris, the program officer for the MacArthur Foundation’s How Housing Matters research initiative, the discussion centered around research that expands the literature on housing’s effect on educational outcomes and how that research can drive policy initiatives.

Why Housing Matters for Child Outcomes

Amy Schwartz, Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics and New York University (NYU) and Director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy, laid out the basic economic links between housing and education. Home values drive increased property taxes, which lead to greater school funding. Inversely, better quality schools lead to better home values – the two are inextricably linked. However, there are more intricate connections between housing and education, according to Schwartz. The quality of a housing unit can affect students’ rest and study space and neighborhoods determine feelings of safety and the schools that children attend.

Even more difficult to see is the link between residential mobility and educational success. One of Schwartz’s studies shows that children who move earn lower test scores, particularly when the move is involuntary and/or in the middle of the school year. As a result, residential moves may be at the root of problems seen in schools. By making school transitions easier with transportation and neighborhood-based resources, policy makers can help children see better outcomes.

Another study from Tufts University’s Tama Leventhal found a strong correlation between housing quality and child development. Lead paint, air quality and crowding all affect the behavioral development of children – largely through the stress of parents. Housing quality and crowing are a source of stress for parents, which can undermine efforts to raise children. By strengthening housing code standards and screening in schools for students who live in poor quality housing, educators and policy makers can have a meaningful impact on child development.

Promising Housing Policies

Equally as important as studying the effect of housing on educational outcomes is studying the results of effective housing policies. RAND Corporation Policy Researcher Heather Schwarz discussed the inclusionary zoning policy of Montgomery County, Maryland — one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Montgomery County has one of the largest inclusionary zoning programs in the United States, requiring developers to set aside 12 to 15 percent of homes they build to be sold or rented below market prices. In addition, the county’s housing authority has the right to buy one-third of these units. The policy allows poor residents to rent or purchase homes in areas with better schools. In her study, Schwartz found that in these schools the public housing students are catching up to non-poor students in terms of academic success and test scores.

Not all housing policies are totally effective in improving child education outcomes. For example, Ingrid Gould Ellen of New York University presented a study that found that housing vouchers often do not connect families to better schools. While families with vouchers who do move tend to move to areas with better schools, many families stay in their original homes — some by choice, others because they lack information about their options. To improve the effectiveness of housing vouchers in terms of connecting students to better schools, local housing authorities must share information from the Department of Housing and Urban Development about local schools and voucher-friendly landlords near better performing schools.

Examples from the Field

In Tacoma, Washington, the local housing authority has implemented a program that illustrates the effectiveness of cross-sector collaboration in improving educational outcomes for children. The Tacoma Housing Authority houses one in seven public school students and, according the Executive Director Michael Mirra, it is already deeply situated in the lives of its residents. The Tacoma Housing Authority will help students apply for college grants to in-state universities and provide free children’s books to residents to send the message that literacy is important.

In its failing school model, the Tacoma Housing Authority works with failing schools to implement the International Baccalaureate program and adopt metrics that help determine success for residents and students. Together, the educators at schools like MacCarver Elementary School and the housing authority focus on developing the whole child through community partnerships. MacCarver has seen increased parent involvement and better communication between all parties involved.


Throughout the roundtable, there were a number of recurring threads of conversation. First, studying the connection between housing and education is not enough on its own — policy implications and changes are critical as well. In addition, housing research and policy must strike a balance between increasing residential mobility and revitalizing existing housing and the surrounding neighborhoods. And finally, solutions can come from all angles — from the resources available at local housing authorities, from laws implemented by state and federal policymakers, from screenings implemented by the educators who work with children each day, and more.