“The Rent is Too Damn High” and Education

We know school desegregation is important because of a growing body of research showing that "peer effects" are correlated with better teacher quality and higher test scores for low-income children. So I've done a lot of reporting and writing about how public schools can racially and socioeconomically integrate classrooms, both through instructional reforms and by forging partnerships with other schools across the boundaries of neighborhoods and even muncipalities.

That said, school desegregation efforts are, at their core, a work-around for the problem of residential segregation by race and class. That's why I found my friend Matt Yglesias' new e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High, so fascinating. Matt argues for increasing the supply of affordable housing in central urban neighborhoods–the kinds of places with good or rapidly-improving public schools–by allowing real estate developers to build tall apartment towers, regardless of NIMBY concerns about historic preservation, aesthetics, or preserving sight lines. He also argues that inner-ring suburbs should reduce zoning barriers that make it impossible for developers to construct high-density, affordable housing near good schools.

Here's the crux of Matt's argument as it relates to education:

The United States is racked by a multisided and vicious series of controversies about improving learning outcomes in our public schools. One thing everyone can agree on is that it's neither logistically nor politically easy to achieve large improvements. But given that some schools are already performing better than others, this raises the question of why parents don't simply relocate to places with better schools. Many parents, of course, do relocate. It's common for afluent young couples to move out to the suburbs when their children reach the appropriate age. "Everyone knows" that poor families can't afford to do this. But we only rarely ask why poor families can't afford to move to nice suburbs. It's not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It's because it's frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accommodate lower-income families. Indeed, in higher-income suburbs, American regulatory policy often goes further and bans "accessory dwellings"–the practice of renting out a room a basement, garage, or attic to someone who's not a member of the family. 

Towns' reasons for wanting to zone out potentially "undesirable" low-income families are understandable, if not particularly admirable, but when exclusion occurs all across the country it becomes a major barrier to the delivery of high-quality public services.

Although I believe there is real cultural value in some historic preservation efforts, I generally agree with Matt that American urban liberals should worry less about preserving buildings and property values, and more about expanding access to quality education, transportation, and other services. 

I'd only add that politically, achieving greater residential integration may not totally solve the problem of school segregation. Some privileged parents feel so strongly about sending their children to schools dominated by racially and socioeconically similar children that they will do almost anything to preserve school segregation, including gerrymandering school zones; opening new schools for the "gifted;" suing to prevent school district consolidation; and so on and so forth. 

But Matt's thinking on the issue is creative and an important challenge to established policy assumptions. Check out the e-book here.

11 thoughts on ““The Rent is Too Damn High” and Education

  1. Nandalal Rasiah

    are there any developed countries with large immigrant/minority populations that do not consciously place the affordable accommodations most likely to house them in locations far removed from the most desirable locations? In the UK and France, people desire the center of the city and thus affordable housing is located, generally, at the periphery of such cities. Having personally supplied the ‘diversity’ at many mostly white educational institutions, I come to expect people who laud diversity in theory to find creative ways to avoid it in practice and I cannot fault them for doing so, especially in the short-term, as they rationally refuse the role of guinea pig.

  2. JD Carpentieri

    “In the UK and France, people desire the center of the city and thus affordable housing is located, generally, at the periphery of such cities”

    I don’t think this is particularly accurate re London. I’ve lived here for 12 years, in 6 very different parts of London, but always in Zone 2 and always as a fairly middle class person in a fairly decent home. I’ve never lived more than a block or two from a council estate, and my experience is completely typical. There is cheaper housing in the outskirts, but there is a large amount of council housing in Zones 1 and 2 (in US terms, Zone 1 – the very centre – would roughly be Manhattan, as it includes the very richest areas, and Zone 2 could be thought of as Brooklyn). And the affordable, central, subsidised housing is not concentrated in large, isolated ghettos; it’s integrated into the local housing infrastructure.

    London is much more economically integrated than New York or other American cities. Sadly, this means that politicians and some selfish parents find other ways to avoid economically integrated schools. The “free [ie charter] school” movement is in part a means for middle class parents to cluster their children together into the best urban schools.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    Two related points:

    - Building affordable high rise housing in US inner cities has already been done, deemed a failure, and is in the process of being reversed. What were the urban renewal projects of the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s, if not that? Outside of NYC, which still retains a few echoes of its social democratic past in regard to low and moderate income housing, these projects are being destroyed or privatized, especially if they are close to central business districts or other amenities, and their residents dispersed.

    In practice, “affordable housing” is a very vague and malleable concept – one that often morphs into something unrecognizable from its original selling points -when talking about billion dollar real estate projects that take place over years and involve eminent domain. The number of units devoted to affordable housing in these mega projects devoted to inevitably shrinks, and the financial threshold for what is “affordable” inevitably rises.

    - Those US cities that remain integral to the circuitry of global capitalism are busy ridding themselves of poor people and people of color, mostly as a function of income polarization, but, with its racial shadow always lurking and ready to intrude. Ed Koch said thirty years ago that poor and working people had no inherent right to the city, a sentiment Michael Bloomberg continues to aggressively act upon.

    Yglesias’s proposal is ahistorical, and oblivious to the realities of rapidly gentrifying cities and the suburbanization of poverty.

  4. Narnia0000

    Increasing affordable housing in wealthier communities is moot in the changing face of public education. I remember hearing Robert Reich say that education is the only vehicle to move up in our class structure – a “secret of life”. Education is being/has become privatized. Our educational systems are now privately controlled centers. Here in California the amount of private donation – middle-class up to billionaire (and we have many where I live) and corporate funding has secured education – and the dollar amounts would stun the average person. The UC system no longer is the beacon to help those who are smart enough to take advantage. Where you live doesn’t make a difference right down to elementary school education. It is practically unavailable. I commend your research and many articles on education. Very interesting.

  5. Amanda

    I agree that it would be great to give lower income families housing options in suburbs or other locations that already have good schools. But that doesn’t solve the problem that the schools/school districts they would be ‘escaping’ from are failing. I would rather see resources put towards turning around failing schools, rather than facilitating the flight of families who care about education to other schools/districts that are already doing well.

  6. Private Schools

    I totally agree with the title that “The Rent is Too Damn High” and it is not possible for everyone to use or take this opportunity..Well London is much more economically integrated than New York or other American cities..

  7. Jake Elghanayan

    I like the idea, but it runs counter to most local political wisdom (which is generally the political unit that controls land use decisions). Basically, education is the primary cost for local governments and property taxes are their primary source of revenue. Local governments thus use low density zoning restrictions to exclude poor families, who generally have more children per family and have less income available to spend on property taxes. Occasionally, state courts have stepped in to strike down such schemes, most famously in the New Jersey Mt. Laurel cases. Expanding or reworking this doctrine may be one place to start in implementing Mr. Yglesias’s ideas.

    PS — Hi Dana.

  8. Mlarsen23

    I think a number of commenters are missing the point. Yglesias’s idea is not to build high rise affordable housing anywhere. His idea is to let stop having so many laws that prevent private developers from building market rate housing where they see an opportunity, at a height that serves the market demands. Then there would be more housing where it was needed, which would be a good thing by itself, plus rents would go down in the whole area as more apartments become available.

    More property would generally make for more property taxes, not less.

    What Yglesias is talking about is encouraging more private spending, not more public spending.

  9. EB

    When my kids were young, would I have moved into a high rise – or any elevator building – in order to get into a better school district? No. It was important to me to be able to be aware of what my kids were up to without hovering over them — which you can do in a neighborhood of two or three family houses, townhouses, or single family houses but not a high rise. Poor as well as middle class parents tend to feel this way. Maybe it’s different in New York. The other thing you need to keep in mind is that you can preach at middle class parents that they have to find schools that are economically and racially integrated (and I have done that and lived it) but there are some downsides for the middle class kids if their numbers fall below about 50%. Parents don’t necessarily want all middle class friends for their children, but they want at least some. And they want safety, and they want low teacher turnover. It is not elitist to want these things.

  10. Dana Goldstein

    Thanks for all the comments.

    EB: I don’t think your desires are elitist. I’m reading some new research on integration, which I will blog about this week, and the best results for all students occur when the number of middle-class children in a school is above 50 percent. You are correct to note that this has an affect on teacher turnover and learning. Of course, not every school can meet this standard, but in many regions, school zones have been deliberately drawn to place students in schools with socioeconomically-like students.

    I understand apartment living is not for everyone, but Matt’s book demonstrates that a significant number of people leave central urban neighborhoods not because they truly want to, but because they cannot afford to stay or are dissatisfied with public services such as schools. And Matt argues these are the families that should be given a chance to stay in the city.


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