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Montgomery a prime example of "how housing matters"

It's not often that 2 members of the Presidential Cabinet sit down for a morning chat before a crowd of several hundred spectators. Last week, however, at the National Building Museum's "How Housing Matters" Conference, Secretary Shaun Donovan of HUD and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Health and Human Services did just that.

Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.

The keynote conversation, centered around the impact of the built environment on individuals' well-being and development, set the tone for a productive day of interdisciplinary discussion and debate. Throughout the event, leading experts from around the nation discussed the significance of housing and its role in education, economic development and public health.

The Washington area's own Montgomery County came up as a headliner during the panel on housing and education.

The Maryland county served as the setting for a recent study by Heather Schwartz, of the Rand Corporation, and based on Heather's findings, it may be a model for other areas in search of a new and effective strategy for raising educational standards.

In her study, Heather sought to uncover the impact of economically integrative housing on academic success among elementary-aged students. In short, she was able to track the progress of a cohort of highly disadvantaged elementary students whose families, previously tenants of traditional public housing, had been randomly assigned to low-poverty areas affiliated with low-poverty elementary schools.

Over a period of five to seven years, she was able to track significant improvements in math and reading scores among the transplanted population. Furthermore, not only did the students placed in low-poverty schools outperform their moderate-poverty peer group, but they had also played catch-up to their peers. By the end of elementary school, the resettled population had narrowed the achievement gap with their non-poor peers by one-half for math and one-third for reading.

While it may come as no surprise that placing kids into more stable environments and sending them to wealthier schools has an effect on their academic performance, the rate and consistency of academic improvement among kids in the study is nothing short of impressive.

Given the success and simplicity of the approach, it is astounding how uncommon it is for US cities or counties to implement such a strategy.

I had a chance to sit down with Heather following her presentation, and one of the first things that I asked her was, "Why Montgomery County?"

As it turns out, the DC suburb is currently the single largest community to feature a policy of inclusionary zoning, without which Heather's study could not have been possible.

Inclusionary zoning amounts to a set of laws that require developers to set aside housing for lower income families. In Montgomery's case, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program means that approximately 15% of homes built are to be sold or rented at below-market value. More often than not, the right of first refusal to purchase the home falls to the Housing Authority. Nestled within otherwise affluent communities, these dwellings provide stable, high-quality housing and unrestricted access to community resources for families that would otherwise find themselves in poor public housing developments.

Although, as Heather pointed out, inclusionary zoning has been around since the early 1970's and many studies have indicated the model is highly successful, relatively few communities have embraced it in the same way as Montgomery County.

While there are likely many reasons that this is the case, one concern that may arise is whether integrating schools to include variable poverty levels may actually decrease the performance of students hailing from low-poverty homes. Heather's finding's indicate that no such trend exists, and that the effects of mixing up an elementary school population through inclusionary zoning yields only positive effects for the economically disadvantaged students.

Of course, inclusionary zoning policies are not limited to Montgomery County. Heather is following up on her original research with a new study that will examine 11 cities and over 15,000 addresses.

For the time being, effective and enforced inclusionary zoning is predominantly a highly local movement that lacks widespread popularity. With research initiatives like Heather's and forums like the "How Housing Matters" conference, coupled with growing, bipartisan alarm regarding the state of education and child welfare in the US, perhaps we'll see more interest and more implementation of inclusionary zoning in the future.

Ksenia Kaladiouk lives in Southeast DC, where she spends her time writing, sketching, running, taking photos, scheming and studying the flying trapeze. She is particularly interested in the history of urban development, education, the effects of space on the rise and fall of cultural and commercial institutions, and vice versa. 


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curious if the Rand study controlled for the differentiated educational support program in Montgomery County for Title I students and schools. I think that's just as important, obviously, especially for housing not located in high income areas.

by Richard Layman on Nov 10, 2011 12:58 pm • linkreport

It's nice to read about something that works, especially in my place of residence.

It should also be noted that Montgomery County has a long history of focusing on the needs of the specific students in a school rather than having a one-size-fits-all. When I interviewed Ana Sol-Gutierrez she emphasized her time on the county school board and how they started working with teachers in the early 1990's to keep educational achievement high despite changing demographics in some pockets in the county. She was not the only one working on that issue. Recent Superintendent Weast consistently emphasized the need to address the challenges of middle-income and lower-income students differently than in the schools that are homogeneously upper-middle and upper income. Most importantly, Weast's office worked with teachers to plan and subsequently provided resources (as in funding) to execute the plans to keep education good across different income levels.

by Cavan on Nov 10, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

I'd be interested to see if this trend continues into middle and high schools. Sadly, I'm not sure it does.

Where I grew up in Montgomery County (and where my folks still live) there is a growing trend for affluent families to send their kids to private schools. In many areas of the county, the elementary and middle schools are overcrowded (my former elementary school now has more classes in "temporary" trailers than in the actual building) and there's a growing fear that the sterling high schools are losing ground. Not sure what this means for Dr. Schwartz's study, but it's something that needs to be looked at since the achievement gap swells after elementary school.

by Adam L on Nov 11, 2011 12:53 am • linkreport

Adam L -- very good question.

by Richard Layman on Nov 11, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Sadly, while Heather Schwartz crunched numbers through 2007 for her study, the trends in Montgomery County have been going the opposite direction since then. The wealthier elementary schools tend to have very similar or slightly lower numbers of low income children from 2007 to 2011. The number of lower income children in already poorer schools school greatly increased during the same time period. Inclusionary zoning helps, but, in the end, it means each wealthy school has 10-20 low income children out of several hundred while some poor schools are 90% low income children. I've recently been analyzing these numbers in response to a push to decrease economic integration in the BCC cluster & will share my spreadsheets with any GGW writer who's interested.

Without ignoring what MCPS is doing right, it's important to note how far they still have to go.

by Dan on Nov 13, 2011 12:25 am • linkreport

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