For the past year, The Century Foundation has conducted research exploring the links between exclusionary zoning in housing and educational opportunity in New York State and New York City. The bulk of this work has focused on unearthing data and stories that demonstrate how zoning laws that limit the building of duplexes, apartments, and other more affordable housing types are preventing many families from accessing high-quality schools and, as a result, exacerbating educational inequality. (These reports include analyses of the inequities created by exclusionary zoning in four different regions across New York State—Queens, Long Island, Westchester, and Buffalo—as well as case studies highlighting positive examples of zoning reform from across the country, in California, Minneapolis, Oregon, and Charlotte.)

But policy change requires more than just research and data; it also requires political savvy and effective communication. To that end, TCF commissioned original communications and message research to uncover the most effective ways of talking about exclusionary zoning and its links to educational policy.

What TCF’s research found was that the links between schools and housing affect the views that New York State residents have about possible housing policies and zoning reform, but in ways that are often challenging for advocates for housing reform. Rather than seeing increasing educational equity as a key motivator to get the public interested in reforming New York’s exclusionary housing policies, the research found the opposite—that fears of school overcrowding and competition for resources were leading points of opposition to housing reform.

So what does this mean for leaders and advocates that want to see better housing policies to create more inclusive communities? It means that they need to take a more proactive approach to talking about public education, because people become more receptive to more inclusive housing policies when you first change how they think about education.

Findings from TCF’s Messaging Research

TCF partnered with Karp Strategies, an urban planning strategy and consulting firm, to conduct research on how the public responds to language around zoning, zoning reform, housing equity, and their impact on K–12 education, as well as what messaging would be successful in persuading decisionmakers and voters to reform damaging and exclusionary zoning practices. The research included roughly a dozen interviews with stakeholders and over 150 survey responses from New Yorkers across four different geographic regions: Erie County (targeting Buffalo and East Amherst/Williamsville), Westchester County (targeting Portchester and Scarsdale), Nassau County (targeting Hempstead and Flower Hill), and New York City (targeting Jamaica/Hollis and Bayside/Little Neck).

A number of findings from TCF’s research echo other messaging work on housing (such as this research from Sightline Institute on lessons learned from legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes statewide in Oregon). For example, TCF found that using positive framing, avoiding jargon, and providing specific examples of the types of new housing that would be possible under reformed zoning laws all help increase people’s receptivity to new housing policies. But the messaging research went further to focus specifically on the connections between education and housing, revealing a number of new insights:

  • School district quality is a top reason for where parents choose to live. Across all respondents, parents and nonparents alike, affordability was the most important factor in selecting a neighborhood. But for parents of school-aged children, the second most important factor was school district quality. This was particularly true for respondents living in suburban areas, and this finding tracks with national data showing that many families (the parents of one in five public school students nationwide) exercise school choice by selecting where to live because of access to schools.
  • Parents with school-aged children were more likely than other respondents to oppose new laws to allow duplexes, apartments, or other multi-family homes in their neighborhood. Parents who opposed adding new housing types expressed concerns related to lowering property values, changing neighborhood character, increased traffic, and overcrowding in schools.
  • Overcrowding of schools emerged as a powerful argument against adding affordable housing. Respondents—parents and nonparents alike—frequently brought up the issue of overcrowding in schools as a reason to oppose new housing proposals, even when evidence and the facts on the ground tell a different story. Residents from Scarsdale, for example, cited concerns that new families moving into the community would burden the existing school infrastructure, but data show that school enrollment in Scarsdale has actually declined in recent years. While under-enrollment may create smaller class sizes in the short term, over time it can lead to funding shortfalls, school closures, and layoffs.
  • Some parents do support adding more housing to their communities, and for them, access to a diverse environment for their children is one of the motivating factors. Many parents also mentioned concerns about the ongoing housing crisis, affordability for young adults and families, and high rates of homelessness.
  • Stereotypes and discrimination based on race and class pervade the conversation about housing policy and its effect on schools. Many respondents assumed that low-income families would not contribute positively to the school community, and their responses showed that these views on social class were also entangled with assumptions about immigration status and race.

These findings highlight links between the public’s views on education and their views on housing that present challenges for those working to create more inclusive housing policies and communities.

This landscape is complicated somewhat by other messaging research that found greater success when linking housing and education. For example, a 2020 poll of New Hampshire voters found that the most successful framing for zoning reform—more effective than emphasizing property rights or economic growth—was based on fairness, including fair access to schools:

New Hampshire’s planning and zoning regulations are unfair to working families struggling to make ends meet. By limiting the new housing that can be built, these restrictions drive up rents and house prices, making housing completely unaffordable for more and more Granite Staters. Everyone knows that some towns in New Hampshire are much more expensive to buy in than others, and they tend to be the places with better schools. So poor families in New Hampshire get stuck in poverty, because they cannot afford to live where they can get a better education for their kids.

New Hampshire, however, is one of the least racially diverse states, with a population that is almost 90 percent white. This message of fairness might land differently in New York, where the population is 54 percent white, 20 percent Latine, 18 percent Black, 10 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and 3 percent two or more races—and where TCF’s messaging research showed that race is explicitly and implicitly an important factor in conversations about zoning.

Likewise, a 2022 poll of Virginia voters found that 84 percent of respondents agreed in response to this question: “Virginia has arbitrary district boundaries that traditionally leave underprivileged students behind. Do you agree or disagree that those kids should have access to the best public schools just like the rich kids do?” The context for the poll, however, was testing receptiveness for policies to remove school attendance zones and allow open enrollment, not testing receptivity to new housing policies.

Thus, while it may be possible to get the messaging on schools and housing right to advance the cause of reforming exclusionary zoning laws, there are clearly minefields that need to be avoided.

What This Means for Housing Reform Advocates

So what should this messy connection between the public’s views on education and views on housing mean for advocates of affordable housing and zoning reform?

For housing reform advocates, there may be a temptation to steer away from mentioning education altogether. That’s what many are already doing. And if zoning were an issue where reform advocates could rack up easy political wins across the country, maybe that approach would be the wisest. But that is not the case. States and cities across the country are starting to take steps to implement better policies that allow more affordable housing options, but battles are still hard fought. Proposed zoning reforms can attract a lot of backlash, as New York’s recent example shows.

TCF’s messaging research suggests that the public’s views on education are part of this problem, and rather than ignoring them, housing reform advocates would do well to help shape them for the better. Housing reform advocates cannot be neutral on education, because even if they do not bring it up, the public will make that connection on their own—often in a way that hurts the chances of zoning reform. If leaders and advocates want to make progress on what has historically been a thorny issue, they cannot keep avoiding education and instead need to take a proactive approach to talking about education in a way that pushes beyond harmful zero-sum mindsets.

Better Messaging on Schools to Increase Support for Housing Reform

One of the challenges around messaging on zoning reform is that for so many people, zoning is invisible; it is not something they think about, even though it affects their neighborhoods and their lives in profound ways. But pretty much everyone has had the experience being a former or current student, and many voters are parents. People have lots of opinions about how schools are run and how they are funded, and those opinions bleed into other areas.

At the root of the perceived conflict between maintaining school quality and expanding affordable housing options is a zero-sum, scarcity mindset about education, particularly education funding. When people hear of any plans that would bring an influx of new students into a school district, they have fears that, somehow, limited resources and attention would be sucked up, leaving their schools—and their children—out to dry.

It does not have to be this way—there are other ways to think and talk about public education that replace this scarcity mindset with one of growth.

The resources that are put into education are not fixed, but rather can grow (or shrink) as needed. The simple fact is that, even with existing funding structures and levels, growing student populations in a school district can bring additional funding into a district and introduce economies of scale, counter to the narrative of scarcity. In the United States, education funding mostly follows the child—meaning that, more students typically means more state and federal funding for schools. More funding, in turn, allows school districts to invest in new technology, hire new teachers and support staff, or even consider new construction. Beyond financial resources, these new students bring social and cultural benefits as well—different lived experiences, social networks, and other social capital. So integration, when done well, can serve as a tide to lift all boats. When people understand this point, then opening up communities to more housing and new families and students becomes less threatening.

There are several ways to talk about how schools function and are funded that focus on the abundance model and move away from the scarcity mindset, laying the groundwork for also opening people’s minds to housing reform.

Embrace growth as a deliberate choice to thrive.

Fear of overcrowding in schools is a frequently cited reason by people who oppose zoning reform. But that line of thinking is based on a scarcity mentality that assumes fixed resources for public education. Instead, a growth or abundance framing describes a school system that, with growing student populations, sees expanded resources and increased learning opportunities. This perspective is especially important as the data shows that many school districts across the United States are in reality facing enrollment declines. An op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune, for example, argues in favor of zoning reform to allow duplexes and other multi-family home types specifically to attract new families and students to the district and prevent school closures.

An abundance model of education instead starts with a positive, values-based vision of top-notch education for all students and then highlights what is needed to reach that vision. Messaging that follows the abundance model and places growth as a deliberate choice to thrive include:

  • Our students deserve access to strong teachers and the best technology. This change to our funding model will make sure that is happening in all our schools.

Additional, similar messaging can be found in the section on school funding in a Popular Comms messaging guide. With this abundance mindset also comes an understanding that communities can and should create a bigger pie of education funding rather than focusing only on how we divide that pie. For example, in 2020, the Partnership for the Future of Learning created an interactive “Fund Education Instead Game” that invites people to experiment with ways to increase education funding through measures such as redirecting money from fossil fuel subsidies or raising new funds with estate taxes, and then spend that money on education in ways that could help every student thrive, such as funding free preschool, upgrading school facilities, and funding free summer learning.

Define integration as a key component of quality education.

TCF research showed that among parents who were in favor of housing policy changes to support adding more affordable home types, one of the reasons for support was wanting their children to access diverse environments in their schools and community. So, how can housing reform advocates convince more parents to value and push for greater integration in their children’s schools? TCF conducted extensive research on messaging for school integration in 2021 and found that the most successful messages focused on the benefits for individual students of all backgrounds. They redefined integration as not just “nice-to-have” but essential to the quality of education students need to be prepared for success in the world, and they avoided “cost to students” traps that focus on perceived tradeoffs that come with integration. Such messaging can be framed as follows:

  • Integrated schools, when done well, lead to direct benefits for students….
  • Integrated education leads to the creative, empathetic, well-rounded, and well-prepared students that colleges and employers are increasingly looking for….
  • Integrated education has emotional and cognitive benefits that make it essential to a quality education….

Support education policies that take a broader and fairer approach to school funding and student assignment.

Ultimately, changing public receptivity to housing reform involves not only talking about the impact of new students on schools, but also about the many policies in place that link education to housing. Alongside new ways of messaging about growth and integration in public education, housing advocates should also weigh in on supporting education policy changes that would break the links between zip codes, school assignment, property taxes, and school funding, because these changes can also affect people’s views and behaviors when it comes to housing policy. For example, one study found that when a larger portion of school funding comes from the state rather than from local property taxes, wealthy families are more likely to move outside of their usual enclaves—they, and indeed all families, are “freed up” to move where they would like to without worrying that the local schools are underfunded or that they will be overburdened in taxes to support them. Another study found that cities with large-scale, city–suburban school desegregation plans in place for many years saw faster declines in housing segregation than cities without such plans.

Looking Ahead

Narrative change about public education will not happen overnight, but the framing will shift faster when it is being reinforced from multiple directions, including from housing advocates. And ultimately, a more expansive view of education that envisions quality schools for all as a true possibility lays the groundwork for a more expansive view of housing in our communities, with quality homes and neighborhoods for all.