Housing displacement – particularly within the broader context of housing quality and affordability – is one of those issues that permeates almost every discussion about cities and metropolitan areas nationwide.
And it should. Housing – including the type of housing – has a much broader impact than just one’s individual living conditions or proximity to work and recreation. It also has an impact on the schools and the lives of the students in those schools. It impacts our cities and our neighborhoods.
Many of these factors are outside of the school and the community’s control (i.e. family involvement, school district spending habits), but some of these issues can be ameliorated by community-school partnerships and by broader community partnerships (like CKSNI or school foundations like the Cross Keys Foundation, Dresden Elementary School Education Foundation, etc.) in general. For this reason, even if you don’t have kids in the local schools, your opinions and your efforts do matter (and not just for the typical arguments about how schools use your tax dollars or affect your home values regardless if you have kids or not).
When all aspects of the community are working together collaboratively, we can create an environment where tenants and home-owners, schools and businesses, governments and non-profits collectively address the needs and issues that arise.
Student displacement from housing can often negatively impact both the local school and the broader community. And because we have such small attendance zones here in DeKalb County (compared to neighboring Gwinnett County), a loss of an apartment complex can be incredibly disruptive, triggering the loss of 100-200 students in the elementary, middle, and high schools.
On the one side, this creates a chain of events including the loss of teaching personnel and potential school redistricting because there aren’t necessarily enough housing options for families in that particular school attendance zone. It also creates uncertainty for school budgets and planning departments because many families don’t end up living within the same attendance zone — or even within the same county — when they are displaced.
But on the other side, this disrupts student learning, personal relationships, neighborhood character, local businesses, transit, and more. At its worst, it creates homelessness, lost jobs, and academic deficiency that leads to students dropping out or being held back a grade.
Even on a smaller scale, housing displacement affects the local schools. When students lose a home in the middle of the school year, their education is interrupted. This can happen if a student is suddenly homeless because they get evicted from their home. If their housing situation isn’t stable, they aren’t going to perform well at school – and they might not even be able to attend for a few days or weeks while the family figures out next steps.
One year I had a brilliant student become homeless just a few weeks into the year. I watched as his grades slipped from As to Cs to Fs. Not only was he tired when he came to school, but he also missed multiple days – if not weeks (total) – of school. I found out this student, his mom and his siblings were staying with a family friend. Ultimately, this student’s family found a more permanent place to live, but during the months after his family’s eviction, he missed out on a lot of education and his grades suffered.
I had another student with a similar situation, but her family was not able to find housing in the attendance zone. In fact, they weren’t able to find housing at all. One day she came to school and told me they were moving into a mechanic’s garage somewhere in Gwinnett, and that was the last I ever saw of her.
There are additional barriers to housing stability – not just homelessness due to eviction. Sometimes people become homeless due to other factors.
I recently worked with a family living in Chamblee, their five-year-old attending Montclair Elementary School. When the organization I work with, Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, received a call from the mom about the horrible living conditions inside of their apartment, we got Chamblee code enforcement involved.
The house had been subdivided into 3 different apartments, and the family we were working with lived in the bottom unit. When I walked in, I saw the gaping hole in the floor, the water damage, the furniture protected in plastic wrap. I helped translate for this tenant (because the city didn’t have a bilingual code enforcement officer) as we pointed out the multiple code violations.
We were able to get this family of four (2 parents, a 6-week-old baby, and a 5-year-old child) into a different living situation (and that landlord received fines for multiple infractions), but unfortunately they were living outside of the school attendance zone and were technically “homeless.” They had no way of getting their daughter to-and-from school. We were able to help them get in touch with the school social worker, and – unlike many families we have worked with – they were able to find place back in the same school zone.
These kinds of situations demonstrate a few things. First of all, it underscores the importance of building trust within the community, specifically with tenants so that people can be invited in to help and not punish. In situations like the one in Chamblee, the tenants are the victims of these poor housing conditions, yet oftentimes they are treated as the problem. Cities and counties need to make sure tenants know their rights as renters and that they know who to contact when they are experiencing unhealthy housing.
The second thing is that improved outcomes can happen when everyone works together, when city and school officials and neighbors, non-profits, and faith organizations intentionally create a climate where people feel valued and honored. When families are struggling with evictions or displacements, we can’t simply assume they will find housing or that there will be a shelter to “deal with that sort of thing.” We have to make sure the schools and cities have the relationships, the appropriate tools and the referral networks to ensure our neighbors and their children are cared for.
And the third thing is that – while this might seem counter-intuitive to preserving stable housing for families – in reality, if landlords know that cities are working closely with tenants to ensure that homes are kept safe and habitable, they will hopefully take steps to address these concerns. And in doing so, help keep our families, neighborhoods, and schools more stable.
As a region, we must be mindful of how housing displacement and homelessness impacts all our institutions, and we must address this great need with care and discernment. As cities, we must take housing seriously in order to keep landlords more accountable and to create conditions where people are able to afford access to a healthy, thriving, opportunity-filled life. As school districts, we must value our students’ housing so that it doesn’t destabilize the district and hurt the students and communities we are trying to serve.
When we view communities and neighborhoods holistically, families have the chance to flourish and our institutions have the chance to function effectively.