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How Housing Restrictions Promote Education Inequality

Richard Kahlenberg

September 19, 2023

Disparities in New York City and Long Island schools are exacerbated by building restrictions

Disparities in New York City and Long Island schools are exacerbated by building restrictions

Housing reform is tough, as Gov. Kathy Hochul was reminded earlier this year when her signature Housing Compact to require communities to build more housing went down in flames. The issue is likely to return, however, because housing prices remain unsustainably high as supply has not kept up with demand. And there is another reason — at least as important — to care about housing reform: Housing policy is school policy. Because the vast majority of students attend neighborhood public schools, zoning policies that exclude families of modest means promote economic and racial segregation of schools, which is bad for all students.

To illustrate this problem — and propose solutions — The Century Foundation has teamed up with the Furman Center at New York University to compare pairs of communities that have radically different zoning laws, and examine how those laws impact educational opportunities. 

One study examined two communities in Queens that are located just six miles apart: Bayside/Little Neck and Jamaica/Hollis. They have starkly different zoning regimes and provide drastically different schooling opportunities. In Jamaica/Hollis, you can build multifamily housing almost anywhere, and only 12% of the community’s lots are in places where the building of duplexes, triplexes and apartments are prohibited. By contrast, in Bayside/Little Neck, more than half of the lots (57%) are in places where it is illegal to build anything other than a single-family detached home.

This policy effectively excludes families who cannot afford to purchase a single-family home in Bayside/Little Neck — where the median sales price was $942,500 in 2021. Families are excluded not only from living in those areas; their children are largely deprived of attending the relatively high-performing public schools in Bayside/Little Neck. Whereas 83% of students performed at grade level in fourth-grade math in Bayside/Little Neck in 2019, just 37% of Jamaica/Hollis students did. 

Some will correctly note that the higher family poverty levels found in Jamaica/Hollis may explain part of the difference in academic performance levels. But considerable evidence suggests that low-income students perform better when they have a chance to attend the economically mixed type of schools found in Bayside/Little Neck as opposed to the higher-poverty schools found in Jamaica/Hollis. Public school choice at the high school level can help overcome these residential barriers, but most elementary school students in New York City still attend their local zoned school.

Exclusionary zoning in the New York City suburbs — policies such as those that make it illegal to build multifamily housing or that establish minimum lot sizes and thereby exclude families of modest means — is often even worse than it is in New York City itself. This problem directly affects families who live in New York City and might be interested in living in a suburban community with high-performing schools but are essentially shut out unless they are economically well off.

Low-income students perform better when they have a chance to attend economically mixed schools.

To examine that issue, I authored another report that considered two communities in Long Island’s Nassau County — Flower Hill and the Village of Hempstead. These municipalities are located just nine miles from each other, but are worlds apart in terms of zoning, racial and economic demographics and the performance of the public school students.

Flower Hill, a small community of 5,000 residents, is about three-quarters white, 12% Asian and 10% Black or Hispanic. Eighty percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree or more, and the median household income is almost $250,000. By contrast, the nearby Village of Hempstead, a community with 60,000 residents, is more than 90% Black and Hispanic, and just 7% white or Asian. Only 17% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or more and the median household income in Hempstead is about $75,000, less than one-third of the median income in Flower Hill.

If the neighborhoods are separate and unequal, so are the public schools. In schools served by Flower Hill, 14% of students are low-income, compared with 65% of those in Hempstead. Researchers have concluded that in order to provide equal opportunity, schools with higher concentrations of poverty should spend more money per pupil — but Hempstead spends about $4,000 less per student. Hempstead students have less experienced teachers, larger class sizes, and less access to Advanced Placement courses. Fewer than a third of Hempstead students test on grade level in math and reading, compared with about three-quarters of Flower Hill students.

How did these communities become so different? The most benign interpretation is that the racial and socioeconomic differences represent individual choices, as well as the reality that in a market-based economy, communities that offer stronger amenities — such as well-run public schools, or large homes — will command higher housing prices that tend to exclude working-class families, a disproportionate share of whom are people of color.

There is some truth to this explanation, but it is at best incomplete. Historically, racially restrictive covenants and redlining exacerbated segregation, and contemporary discrimination by Realtors contributes as well. In addition, Princeton researchers have found that “Density zoning is now the most important mechanism promoting class and racial segregation” in the United States.

Sure enough, Flower Hill employs a number of key zoning restrictions that differ dramatically from those in the Village of Hempstead. In Flower Hill, multifamily housing is essentially banned. A paltry 0.4% of the lot area consisted of two- or three-family housing or apartment buildings in 2021. The Village of Hempstead, by contrast, allows multifamily homes in much of the community. In Hempstead, 33% of units authorized to be built between 2014 and 2021 were for multifamily housing, compared to none of the new units in Flower Hill.

Evidence suggests that many Long Island residents, including children in places like Hempstead, and New York City residents, in places like Jamaica/Hollis, would have benefitted from housing growth and zoning reforms.

Moreover, Flower Hill doubles down on exclusion by requiring that single-family homes be built on large lots of land, driving up the prices of those homes. Hempstead, on the other hand, allows lots for single-family homes on less than one-tenth of an acre. In 2020, the median single-family housing price in Flower Hill was $1.62 million, almost four times the $415,000 median price in Hempstead. And in Flower Hill, just 11% of occupied housing units were occupied by renters in 2021, compared with 56% of such units in Hempstead.

What can be done? Here are three ideas for New York reforms.

First, New York City can reduce its own exclusionary zoning policies. Mayor Eric Adams has proposed a “Get Stuff Built” agenda, with the goal of creating 500,000 new homes over the next ten years. He wants New York to become a “City of Yes,” by reducing exclusionary practices, such as off-street parking requirements that dramatically drive up the price of housing. In particular, Adams would reform zoning laws to allow more “two-family houses, accessory dwelling units, small apartment buildings, and shared housing models.” 

Second, New York State should pass some version of Hochul’s proposed Housing Compact. The Compact would have assigned downstate communities, including Flower Hill and Bayside/Little Neck, the goal of increasing their housing supply by 3% every three years. Under the proposal, if communities failed to reach those goals, the state would require municipalities to provide applicants for housing permits with a fast-track approval process. Additionally, communities would need to rezone for greater housing within a half mile of commuter railway and subway stations.

Hochul’s attempt to include the Housing Compact in the state budget was killed by suburban opposition, led by people like Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman.

But the evidence suggests that many Long Island residents, including children in places like Hempstead, and New York City residents, in places like Jamaica/Hollis, would have benefitted from housing growth and zoning reforms. Less recognized is that students in places like Flower Hill and Bayside/Little Neck would have benefitted too, because opening up these communities to more multifamily housing could have opened the doors to a greater variety of residents. Evidence suggests Flower Hill and Bayside/Little Neck students would thereby be enriched by interacting with students who have a different set of life experiences.

A New York State Economic Fair Housing Act could make clear that just as source-of-income discrimination is wrong, so is income discrimination by government zoning laws.

Third, thinking more boldly, New York State could pass the nation’s first state-level Economic Fair Housing Act. In a new book, “Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See,” I propose a federal Economic Fair Housing Act, which would subject communities that discriminate through their zoning laws by income to provide a powerful justification that such laws are “necessary” in order to advance a legitimate objective, such as protecting public health or safety If they fail to do so, federal judges could impose injunctive relief to eliminate the economic discrimination.

New York State could pass a state version of such a bill. In the realm of civil rights laws, state governments have often enacted their own anti-discriminatory laws in advance of federal action. For example, several states — including New York — have enacted protections against “source-of-income” discrimination (typically, to shield Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher recipients from discrimination by landlords who refused to take vouchers). A New York State Economic Fair Housing Act could make clear that just as source-of-income discrimination is wrong, so is income discrimination by government zoning laws.

By highlighting the economic nature of housing discrimination, the New York Economic Fair Housing Act could help forge a bipartisan coalition of Democrats representing working-class Black and Hispanic constituencies and Republicans representing working-class white constituencies across the state. Such urban-rural coalitions were critical to passing laws to legalize multifamily housing in states such as Oregon and California, and the same could happen in New York.

Despite setbacks, the push for housing reform is not going away. Exclusionary zoning laws that artificially constrain the supply of housing have been driving up prices to the point where more than half of New York State residents spend at least 30% of their income on housing. In the future, advocates of genuine equal educational opportunity need to become more vocal allies in the call for zoning reform. There is no clear path to a more equal and inclusive future in New York City, Long Island, and New York State without beginning to tear down the walls that divide communities.