Guest Post: Why the Quest for “High Opportunity” Housing May Destabilize Communities and Schools

Kristi Rangel | August 17, 2016

The following is a guest blog post by Kristi Rangel, the Public Health Education Chief with My Brother’s Keeper Houston, a program of the City of Houston’s Health Department. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.

In Texas, there are three primary elements used to identify “high-opportunity areas” for building affordable housing: high income, low levels of poverty, and high-quality schools. The idea is to counteract the “harm” of years of building affordable housing in areas of concentrated poverty by moving low-income families into high opportunity areas. The goal is to create new, diverse communities where relocated families and their children have an opportunity to thrive.

In reality, what has happened is the residents currently living in high opportunity areas don’t want “low-income” neighbors. Their protests are loud and powerful because of their affluence and understanding of how the system works. Most recently, we witnessed this power dynamic in Houston with the proposed mixed-income project in the Galleria area on Fountain View Drive. What on the surface appears to be civil conversation had the under-tones of a hysteria of losing the quality of living existing residents have become accustom to. The mayor recently announced he wouldn’t be moving forward with the project.

But if the project had moved forward, how much “opportunity” would those new residents have had? They likely would have been pigeonholed and stereotyped, in their new homes and schools.

Recently, I traveled to Austin to testify before the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) board about how the push for “high opportunity” housing impacts other communities.

According to TDHCA rules, potential sites for newly built and renovated affordable housing are graded according to an Opportunity Index. This index is designed to ensure development is steered towards areas with good economic development and low poverty. Potential building sites are given points based on their level of opportunity. High opportunity areas have poverty rates below 15 percent, with the median household income being in the top quartile of the county the area sits in. In addition, the zoned area elementary school must have a rating of 77 or greater, based on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) “Index 1” accountability system that’s tied to STAAR scores. A rating of 77 is well above the score of 60 required by TEA’s 2016 accountability standards for a school to be rated “acceptable.”

The way housing is made affordable is through tax credits for the developers building the properties. Developers can be awarded 4 or 9 percent tax credits based on their application to TDHCA, each cycle. Nine percent tax credits are very competitive and are awarded based on a point system. Criteria such as financial feasibility, local support, size and quality of proposed units, are taken into account and used to award points. Opportunity Index and Educational Excellence are also included in that scoring criteria. Both measures include schools’ performance in the states accountability system in their point classifications. For Educational Excellence the most points (3) are given to areas with all area schools earning a 77 or greater on the TEA performance index 1.

TDHCA’s current system for awarding affordable housing tax credits jeopardized a new affordable housing development by New Hope Housing. Their development would provide long-term permanent housing for women and their children from the Star of Hope Homeless Shelter. New Hope’s development would be built near the Sunnyside area, where several of the area schools have moved on and off the Texas Education Agency’s Improvement Required list. The majority of the area schools did not meet TDHCA’s definition of “high quality,” since they fell short of the 77 threshold. The affordable housing tax credits previously given to the project were in danger of being revoked because the quality of the area’s schools prevented it from meeting the criteria of a “high opportunity” area.

My open testimony to the TDCHA board was about my experience at as the former principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary School in Houston Independent School District (HISD). My four years leading my school were made more complex by my school’s student mobility rate of approximately 35 percent each year. This means that only 65 percent of my students who started school in August would still be there at the end of the school year. As for those who remained at the end of the school year, it was a toss-up whether they would be back next year or became part of the next 35 percent who would fail to complete the full year. My students often felt like grains of sand slipping through my hands and those of the faculty. It was not uncommon for me to encounter a second grader who had attended at least three schools in his or her short school career. My school had — and continues to have — one of the highest school mobility rates in the district.

The lack of stable, safe and secure housing is one of the reasons families would pack up and move – often overnight. They were simply searching for better circumstances. There were times we would conduct home visits to houses with failing roofs and boarded up windows. Many of the slumlords in the area capitalized on the fact that families with less-than-stellar rental histories have fewer options for housing. Single moms with children moved from one relative to another struggling to get back on their feet. We reported one apartment complex, where the grown men loitered day and night, because we feared our students would be propositioned or recruited to sell drugs.

I told the housing board how elated my staff and I were when we found out the newly-rebuilt Gulf Coast Arms housing development would be zoned to Kashmere Gardens Elementary. Gulf Coast Arms is a 350-unit Section 8 Reconstruction Project awarded by the City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department. We had about 75 students whose families lived in Gulf Coast Arms. It was like a dream to be able to safely visit families and know that our students were not at risk in their own home. My school partnered with the city health department and other non-profits to provide wellness fairs and other outreach events on the grounds of Gulf Coast Arms. Best of all, at the end of the school year, we knew that we would see these students next year.

Research shows that student mobility has adverse effects on students and their learning. Moving schools three or more times before eighth grade has been shown to increase a student’s likelihood of dropping out by four times. In schools with lots of mobility, there is an instability of school culture. Teachers find themselves struggling to access how much students know because they don’t have a colleague to ask about students in previous years. Learning gaps grow wider because teaching is a skillful art that requires taking the whole child in account. The standardized test scores that follow students don’t tell teachers which students suffer with socio-emotional or family issues. It is often hard for students to build relationships and thrive when they know they are moving next week. The emotional toll can be devastating to everyone, if you dare to get too close.

Gulf Coast Arms was a small glimmer of hope for my school and its students. It gave us guaranteed stability. Under the current state rules, my school’s community and many others may never have these kinds of bright spots again because they are not viewed as having opportunities for families.

The answer is not to pick families up and remove them from where they may have been for generations. For those relocated, many experience loss and disconnect from their support networks made of family, friends and neighbors. You can’t move every family into “high opportunity” areas. Not putting safe affordable housing in all types of communities keeps the cycle of instability and insecurity going for children and their families.

I recognize that this new affordable housing rule was created with the intentions of addressing disparities between groups of people and communities. No matter how noble the advocates for this policy may view themselves, they are missing the complexity of community, families and schools. The current policy doesn’t allow for families to stay within their current communities and gain stability surrounded by cultural and historical roots. It doesn’t recognize that the relationship between school and community is symbiotic.

Guest Post: Why the Quest for “High Opportunity” Housing May Destabilize Communities and Schools