2012: Living and learning

Mixed-income neighbourhoods lead to better schools and higher achievement, research shows

 

By TERI PECOSKIE

In the words of Paul Johnson, Hamilton’s director of neighbourhood development strategies, where we live matters.

It matters because where we live affects our health. It affects our odds of employment and our chances for economic success.

Where we live also matters because it is a strong predictor of educational outcomes. In Hamilton, standardized test scores and graduation rates show poorer students tend to fare worse than their wealthier peers, particularly in schools where poverty is highly concentrated.

The city’s public and separate school boards have already taken some steps to mitigate the effects of poverty in its neediest schools, most of which are clustered in the inner city.

Literacy and oral language programs targeting the youngest students have helped narrow the gap between high- and low-achieving schools. Homework and nutrition clubs, as well as top-up funding for the most at-risk schools have also led to more equity within the system.

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But for experts such as Washington, D.C.-based urban policy consultant David Rusk, in-school interventions aren’t enough.

“School reform champions constantly point out how specific low-income schools – typically with an inspired principal working with a free hand – have substantially closed the gap, ” he says. “I know of no large, high-poverty public school district that has closed the educational gaps. Beware of such reports.”

Instead, Rusk and other academics suggest a two-pronged solution. Investing money and resources in needy schools is part of it, as is an attempt by school boards to make individual schools more diverse.

But a commitment to creating mixed-income neighbourhoods throughout the region – a step research shows contributes to diversity in schools as well as higher student achievement, particularly for those children at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum – is also essential.

What local educators, academics and policy-makers are wrestling with is how to accomplish it.

“Change is a challenge, ” Johnson admits. “So I think that if we start to move on some of the agenda or really looking for affordability across the whole city, not just in pockets of our city, it will be a challenge.’

What Johnson envisions is not the traditional idea of affordable housing – that is, an apartment building or townhouse complex entirely dedicated to low-income tenants. Rather, the goal is to create developments that are themselves mixed income, developments such as those in Toronto’s RegentPark neighbourhood or Montgomery County, Md., where market-value and subsidized homes are virtually indistinguishable.

Johnson knows in an age of government cutbacks, getting the housing development community on board is essential.

That could mean offering companies incentives to build a healthy mix of market-value and moderately priced units.

In MontgomeryCounty – the archetypal example of this type of zoning – that means between 12.5 and 15 per cent of the units in subdivisions or apartment buildings must be dedicated to affordable housing.

In return, developers receive a density bonus that helps offset some of the building costs.

It’s a concept Hamilton city manager Chris Murray is also willing to explore.

“There’s nothing wrong with people putting their money on the table to purchase land and then develop it in a good way to make a profit, ” he says. “No one is suggesting that should change.

“It’s just the incentives that would make them want to come and consider what we’re talking about. We’ve never sat down and had those conversations in any meaningful way and I think we should.”

As for the worry the city will get into an incentive environment from which it will never escape, Johnson doesn’t think it’s an issue.

“I think at some stage it becomes possible that these things build their own momentum and you don’t need financial incentives to make it happen.”

Rusk disagrees, saying incentives in the absence of a compulsory mixed-income housing policy don’t have enough teeth.

“To be effective, a local inclusionary zoning ordinance must be mandatory – that is, developers must comply if they want city approvals for their development. Purely voluntary programs just don’t work, ” he says.

However, in addition to achieving the public goal of producing affordable housing, a good policy must also protect the developers’ profitability – a factor Jeff Paikin, president of Hamilton’s New Horizon Homes, admits is essential.

“When you’re a developer and you’re taking a significant amount of risk in order to achieve a significant development, you’re not looking to do things harder. You’re looking to make things less risky, ” he says.

“So if there’s a benefit to the detriment – you get a few extra units at no extra land cost – you’re more likely to be willing to roll the dice.”

In Hamilton, Rusk suggests zoning changes could be used as an incentive. The idea is to streamline the process for developers who purchase underutilized land and seek to have it rezoned for residential use.

In that case, the zoning change itself becomes “a giant density bonus, ” he says.

Meanwhile, creating low-income and market-value units that are architecturally compatible helps to attract residents of all stripes.

The outcome, at least in theory, is that anyone from a janitor to a physician has an opportunity to live within their means, where it’s convenient, such as close to work. And research has shown that schools drawing from such a mix benefit as well.

In Rusk’s words, “housing policy is school policy.”

 

The Metropolitan

Hamilton educators and bureaucrats recently travelled to Montgomery County, Md., to learn about the region’s landmark mixed-income housing policies. The Metropolitan, a 308-unit highrise in Bethesda, was one of the stops on their tour.

The Metropolitan is considered one of the United States’ prime examples of inclusionary living, with almost a third of its units dedicated to affordable housing. What’s unique is that reduced-rent apartments are dispersed throughout the building – not clustered – and it’s virtually impossible to distinguish them from the market-rate homes.

The range of costs means it’s possible for anyone – from waiters to diplomats – to live conveniently close to where they work. Here’s a look at the monthly rates for market-value and affordable units. (All prices are in U.S. dollars.)

Studio

Market: $1,704 to $1,746

Affordable: $489 to $860

One-bedroom

Market: $1,828 to $1,900

Affordable: $416 to $920

Two-bedroom

Market: $2,808 to $3,465

Affordable: $585 to $1,090

Three-bedroom

Market: $3,896 to $4,420

Affordable: $556 to $976

 

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