Incentivizing Detroit homeownership for teachers could boost student, community outcomes

Recently, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced a new program that offers homes in the city’s 30,000-property land bank to employees of Detroit schools – both traditional and charter – at a 50 percent discount.

The idea is to attract educators back to the city and its schools and help solve Detroit’s teacher shortage. As recently as April, Detroit Public Schools Community District officials said the district was more than 260 teachers short, forcing DPSCD to rely upon short-term solutions like using administrators and long-term substitutes to cover classrooms. The shortage has also led to severely overcrowded classrooms that have seriously stymied the district’s efforts to boost student success.

While many are hopeful that the housing incentive could ease the district’s issues with classroom overcrowding, having more teachers in the city has an important ancillary benefit: The reintroduction of middle class families into a city that has staggering rates of concentrated poverty. White and black middle class flight has left Detroit grappling with paralyzing rates of concentrated poverty, defined as neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents fall below the federal poverty threshold ($24,000 for a family of four). According to a study recently released by the Brookings Institution, metro Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population.

In a 2015 City Lab article, urban theorist Richard Florida argued that concentrated poverty is America’s biggest problem because children who grow up in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty often find themselves stuck there. He presents evidence that policy decisions such as exclusionary suburban housing policies have exacerbated the problem. And a 2016 report by Harvard researchers Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz found that children who live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty at a young age then move to a lower-poverty neighborhood had significantly higher college attendance rates and earnings than their peers who remained in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

Currently, more than half of DPSCD’s teachers live outside of Detroit. The drive to move more teachers into Detroit won’t totally address Detroit’s lack of economic diversity, but their increased presence in the city would be a welcome development. One unfortunate consequence for children who live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty is that they are often denied the opportunity to form personal relationships with college-educated adults. It matters because as Michigan Future Inc. posits in our first-ever policy agenda, increasing college attainment is by far the most effective strategy to boost household income in Michigan. At the press conference to announce the new incentive, DPSCD Superintendant Nick Vitti acknowledged the program’s potential to build stronger bonds between students and educators.

“…It allows us to go back to an age when our teachers were directly linked to our schools and the community, which builds a better relationship with our students,” Vitti said.

So while I’m hopeful that the city’s housing incentive for teachers will lower class sizes, I also hope that the infusion of middle class families in Detroit neighborhoods will help dilute Detroit’s concentrated poverty and increase low income residents’ exposure to middle class families, potentially boosting access to opportunity for Detroit students and the schools where they are educated.

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