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Housing and schools

When I speak to local governments about what they can do to improve their local economy at some point I always mention housing and schools.

If they are wishing for a shiny new factory full of high paying jobs, and who isn’t, they will balk at the notion of housing and schools. Housing and schools are not glamorous and too often economic development initiatives are about political glamour. There is not a lot of money sloshing around from other layers of government – no ka-ching.

Housing and schools are hard work. Working on them can be controversial. There are no quick fixes.

Yet local governments have a lot of influence or could. And they should. I often ask my larger audiences if they live in a community where the city council meets regularly with the school board. Very few hands go up – I can remember only two. So I never get to ask the part 2 question – do they meet and talk about housing?

Local economies need young workers. Schools need young families – that’s how their funding works here in Oregon, and in Colorado, and many other states. It should come as no surprise – young families seek good housing choices and good schools.

Many cities have a completely hands off approach to housing. Whatever the developer wants to build and the neighborhood will tolerate, that’s the housing policy. Developers look at current market conditions and try to determine what they can build and sell quickly and profitably. Long range community strategy is not their problem.

Established neighborhoods often resist a new mix of housing types. Bad for property values they say. And while they say they are not against ‘those people’ obviously new housing types make ‘more sense’ elsewhere. Yet these neighborhoods will howl when the elementary school has to close because there are not enough children in older leafy static neighborhoods. Subsidize a tiny magnet school they demand – subsidize me – and if they have enough political power it might happen.

I am no expert on making the schools themselves better. I will say the community has a stake – not just the school board, parents or teacher’s union. So the whole community has to be involved. A good start is for the city council and school board to meet regularly. Talk about schools. Talk about housing. Talk about economic development.