State areas cited in national report linking achievement gap, housing inequality

Connecticut features prominently in a new Brookings Institution report about housing and education inequality — and not in a good way.

The study, “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” found that restrictive zoning laws were highly correlated with educational achievement gaps in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Three of the best examples? Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.

“I think that people are very much aware of the problem that where you live has a disproportionate impact on what school you go to,” said Jonathan Rothwell, senior research analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution and the author of the report. “It’s just very expensive to live near a high-scoring school in many parts of the country.”

What’s less understood, he said, is how local governments can work to make it even costlier. “States like Connecticut and New Jersey and Massachusetts and New York are some of the states that are most notorious in terms of having suburban governments that aggressively limit the supply of affordable housing.”

The town of Fairfield, for example, enforces a “minimum lot size” of 1 acre for builders. That means developers have to buy at least 1 acre of land for a building project — four times as much as the average lot size in the country. Forcing developers to buy more land means they’ll have to charge more for what they build, which means the housing isn’t likely to be affordable for low-income families.

The city of Bridgeport, on the other hand, has far less restrictive zoning laws, and so low-income residents cluster there. They don’t have access to the high-performing schools in Fairfield.

According to the study, of all 100 metro areas surveyed, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area had the largest achievement gap in terms of test scores. It was also the worst in terms of housing inequality: The cost of housing nearly triples near high-performing schools compared to housing near low-performing schools, and families trying to move to a better school district would have to spend $25,000 more per year on housing. The Hartford-East Hartford-West Hartford area came in second for both of these measures.

Connecticut is considered to have the largest achievement gap in the nation. Rothwell didn’t know that when he was completing the study, but “it doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

Calls for education reforms in the state have focused on “school choice” programs and better quality teachers. But Rothwell says it’s worth looking at improving housing choice, too.

“Most families would much rather send their children to a school that is near their home than send them all across the metropolitan area,” he said. “So even if we can increase options within the entire school district, it’s not always going to benefit the large number of low-income students unless there are attractive, high-scoring schools near their neighborhoods.”

Out of the 169 municipalities in Connecticut, only 31 provide a significant amount of affordable housing, which means that families living in those units spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That income number is usually based on the federally defined Area Median Income.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pledged more than $300 million toward addressing Connecticut’s lack of affordable housing this year, in addition to hundreds of millions last year. Most of that money will go toward renovating the state’s decrepit public housing complexes, but some money is also set aside to provide towns with incentives to build more affordable housing units.

The HOMEConnecticut program originally provided $4 million in such incentives when it was created in 2007. The subsequent housing crisis stalled the program, and former Gov. M. Jodi Rell removed $1 million in funds, but the state is now planning to revive it. Five towns — Old Saybrook, Sharon, Torrington, East Lyme and New London — have been approved for planning grants to build more affordable housing, and several other are taking interest in the program.

“The courts have allowed towns to control their zoning,” said David Fink, deputy director of the Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford. “And to some degree, look, I get it. People get to choose [where they want to live].

“The point, though, is that by creating the housing stock, towns create opportunity or lack of opportunity education-wise.”