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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

The intimate connection between housing and education

Mom on first day of school
Ann Doss Helms
A parent cheers and others clap as students arrive for the first day of school at Renaissance West STEAM Academy.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

We kicked off a three-part series at WFAE this week, looking at the efforts to transform Boulevard Homes from a dilapidated public housing complex into a mixed-income community centered around a reborn school. As Ann Doss Helms reports, the Renaissance West Initiative is showing promise after 14 years, but the road to transformation is long, winding and comes with a good amount of backtracking.

What this series really highlights for me is the connection between housing — stable, affordable, safe housing — and students succeeding. I admit my bias as a former real estate reporter (my longest-held beat for the Charlotte Observer), but I think this connection is fundamental enough that we can’t start to solve the educational challenges facing Charlotte and other communities without truly addressing the role of housing.

Some quick background on Ann’s story: In 2009, Charlotte applied to demolish Boulevard Homes on West Boulevard. They were, as the story puts it, “tiny apartments with mold, asbestos and extensive physical decay. And Boulevard Homes was at the heart of a neighborhood where vacant buildings and substandard homes were common, crime was rampant and kids were failing in school.”

Fast-forward to today and there’s an “educational village,” with an improving school, new apartments and townhouses, child care, a senior center and other social services for families. It’s not perfect — the school is still dealing with lingering pandemic disruptions, trying to attract experienced teachers and concentrated poverty — but it’s a start. Unlike a lot of “failing” schools, it feels like Renaissance West is going somewhere.

With all that in mind, here’s a broader look at some of the research around housing and its effect on education. It might inform your view of how CMS can best work to close the racial and economic achievement gaps — and what a school system’s limitations are working within the walls of a schoolhouse. You can find Ann’s stories here.

Education and unstable housing

Almost 15 years ago, Charlotte’s civic leaders and neighborhood activists created the Renaissance West Community Initiative with the vision of revitalizing a west Charlotte neighborhood through an education village approach.

When it comes to school, stability is important. There’s research that shows switching schools — especially involuntarily — has negative impacts on student test scores and graduation rates, and it’s an effect that increases with the frequency a student switches school. When families can’t afford housing, it’s worse. A study by a Federal Reserve researcher in Atlanta found a “significant causal relationship” between eviction rates and students leaving their schools. And the effect was more pronounced among Black families in low-income neighborhoods.

University of Michigan researchers found that housing instability is the single biggest predictor of chronic absenteeism, or missing 10% or more of school days each year. A staggering 40% of homeless students — those with the most unstable form of housing, none, — were chronically absent. Numerous other studies bear out the conclusion that unstable housing and switching schools frequently are among the worst things you can do to a student. Researchers looking at students in California's San Mateo County, for example, found that students in unstable housing (usually doubled up with another family) were four times as likely to not complete high school on time as their stably housed peers.

That was a big problem for Project LIFT, an earlier, $50 million public-private partnership that was meant to turn around nine struggling west Charlotte schools. The effort fizzled, in part, because after three years, 50% of the original students had moved and left their schools.

“I couldn’t even believe how many kids leave and how as a teacher you’re supposed to corral that,” Project LIFT superintendent Denise Watts said in 2016.

Education and segregation

One of the most obvious ways our schools are impacted by housing is that, in a district largely made up of neighborhood attendance zones, the makeup of many schools reflects the residential segregation patterns that have built up over decades in Charlotte. When there are Census tracts in southeast Charlotte that are roughly 90% white, others in west Charlotte that are almost 90% Black, and a few clustered in south and east Charlotte that are 50% or more Latino — well, neighborhood schools will look very different from one neighborhood to another. And since race is often a proxy for income, education levels and other socioeconomic factors, those are distorted in schools too.

That can result in clusters of poverty, with students stuck at lower-income, lower-performing schools. The left-leaning Brookings Institution found that the average low-income student goes to a school with standardized test scores in the 42nd percentile. For a middle- or high-income student, that average is the 61st percentile.

And people are willing to put a dollar figure on that performance difference: Housing costs average $11,000 per year higher near high-performing public schools and home values average $205,000 higher. There’s also a whopping 30 percentage point lower amount of rental housing around high-performing schools, Brookings found.

All of that shows how land use policy and zoning matter to educational policy. The neighborhood around a high-performing school is likely to be wealthier, more expensive to live in and consist of relatively little rental housing. The neighborhood around a low-performing school is likely to be cheaper, lower-wealth and with a lot more apartments (and rental housing could also lead to students being more transient, as mentioned above).

What I find fascinating about that in the context of educational disparities is there’s really nothing a school system can do about the type of housing built in a community. CMS doesn’t get to order more rental housing be built near high-performing schools, for example.

But as Brookings puts it: “Limiting the development of inexpensive housing in affluent neighborhoods and jurisdictions fuels economic and racial segregation and contributes to significant differences in school performance across the metropolitan landscape.”

Education, housing and health

One of the more subtle ways housing can influence student performance is through health. Chronic health problems such as asthma can keep kids out of school. And the most important predictive factor for asthma? Research increasingly points to where you live.

“Perhaps no social determinant is so critical to asthma as housing. Children who live in substandard housing are more likely to be exposed to asthma triggers like mold or pests at home,” write researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab. That’s exactly the kind of housing described at the former Boulevard Homes. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low-income children with asthma who received vouchers to move to better housing saw their number of severe asthma attacks drop by more than half. As the research team put it, clean, safe housing was more effective at treating asthma than many medications.

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Even more worrisome, children in low-income families are more likely to suffer exposure to lead which can lead to lifelong effects, according to the CDC. Additionally, “some African American persons are at a higher risk of lead exposure due to poor housing stock.” The NIH paints a grim picture of the observed effects of higher lead exposure risk among low-income children: “lower cognitive test scores, smaller cortical volume, and smaller cortical surface area.”

All of which adds up to a more complicated, maybe even daunting, picture of educational disparities. When you factor in the importance of stable, safe, clean, affordable housing, it’s clear — as Ann’s series shows — that helping struggling schools must go well beyond the classroom.

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.