Opportunity Faculty Fellows: Does more rental housing lead parents to move in search of better schools?


Public schools in the U.S. tend to be defined by a simple fact: Where you live determines where you go. 

That has a big effect on what various student bodies look like, and can lead to segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines, as student body makeup often mirrors the surrounding neighborhood. With many lower-income students living in families that rent their housing, school attendance zones with no or very few rental housing options effectively freeze most of those students out. 

The makeup of rental housing has been changing, however. Since the 2008 economic crash and recession, Wall Street-backed companies have moved into the single-family market, snapping up tens of thousands of houses in fast-growing cities and converting them into rental units. Many of those were bought through foreclosure sales, and many neighborhoods that had hardly any rental housing before the recession now include numerous single-family houses run by national rental companies.

Professors Tom Mayock and Kelly Vosters noticed a similar effect in previous work done in Florida, and decided to do more research.

“The net impact was a sizable increase in rental offerings zoned for high-performing public schools,” they wrote in their project description. “In the context of school segregation, the increase in rental units zoned for good schools begs a natural question: have low- and moderate-income renter households used this increase in housing opportunity to move their children to higher-performing public schools?”

Little data exists on the subject. They plan to investigate this question locally using demographic data about North Carolina students, including where they have lived and moved, combined with data from the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). That data, which would previously cost money, has been made freely available to researchers and academics.

“We want to quantify changes in housing stock and how they have led to changes in where parents move,” said Mayock. 

If Vosters and Mayock find that low- and moderate-income families are highly responsive to an increasing number of single-family rentals (i.e. if parents choose to relocate to better-performing school districts when more single-family rentals become available), that could indicate another avenue to combat socioeconomic segregation. Policies such as changing land-use rules to encourage more dense housing and rental options in single-family neighborhoods could be an effective way to offer lower income families a path to upward economic mobility. 

Vosters hopes they will help answer a question: “From the intergenerational perspective, do these rezoning policies have a chance to be effective in providing opportunities?”

- By Ely Portillo