Jennifer Comey, coauthor of "Smallest Victims of the Foreclosure Crisis: Children in the District of Columbia" and "Where Kids Go: The Foreclosure Crisis and Mobility in Washington, D.C.," answers five questions about the foreclosure crisis's effect on D.C. public school students. These two reports are part of a National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership study of kids and foreclosures in the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and New York City. Look for the final cross-site report later this year.
August 4, 2011
1. How many D.C. public school students have been hurt by the foreclosure crisis? And what happened to them after foreclosure?
Foreclosures dipped at the height of the housing boom around 2006 and peaked in 2008, affecting roughly 1,500 students. That's a small share—only around 2 percent of all public school students—but it's three times the number of foreclosed students affected during the 2005–06 school year. Also, because foreclosures are pressuring renters more now, we're talking about 2 percent of an already mobile population. Basically, foreclosures are an added stressor.
At first, African American students were disproportionately affected, but over time, more Latino students have felt the crisis. I think it's mostly because neighborhood patterns are changing. Latino families used to live in Columbia Heights and Ward 1 but have moved to Ward 4, which has been hit hard by foreclosures. Not surprisingly, kids whose families were in foreclosure moved more. They didn't move to lower-quality neighborhoods or schools, but, really, that's because most started out in poor-quality areas and schools to begin with. We were surprised to find that foreclosed students switched schools more than their peers. Even if they didn't move, just getting a foreclosure notice made them more likely to switch schools.
D.C. has an open enrollment policy, so students don't have to go to their neighborhood school and a large share of kids—about 40 percent—attend public charter schools. Because of these flexible enrollment policies, we assumed that foreclosure would have little impact on school mobility. And maybe the impact would be even greater if we didn't have as much school choice. But the reasons are still a puzzle. Maybe it's because a foreclosure notice further destabilizes an already unstable situation. It's certainly a red flag.
2. Your study found that more renters are being hurt by foreclosure. District law protects renters from being evicted from a foreclosed property, even if the owners change. What's happening to the renters?
Foreclosures are affecting more multifamily rental buildings in recent years, especially a few of the larger buildings. If renters are in good standing, they're supposed to be able to stay. But the housing counselors we talked to say renters were still being evicted, especially during the early years of the foreclosure crisis. Other families leave voluntarily because the property isn't being taken care of or they're having problems with their utilities. Sometimes they're given "cash for keys" as an incentive for leaving. Many don't even know when owners are in financial trouble—they only find out when they get the notice.
For the past two years, staff from Urban Institute's NeighborhoodInfo DC project have been giving housing-counseling agencies weekly lists of multifamily units where the building owner had received a notice of foreclosure. The counselors go to those homes and tell renters their rights, letting them know they don't have to move. That outreach probably helped shrink the number of renters dislocated by foreclosure.
"WE WERE SURPRISED TO FIND THAT FORECLOSED STUDENTS SWITCHED SCHOOLS MORE THAN THEIR PEERS. EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T MOVE, JUST GETTING A FORECLOSURE NOTICE MADE THEM MORE LIKELY TO SWITCH SCHOOLS.”
3. What does the research say about the effects on kids of moving a lot or switching schools? And the effects on schools?
The literature is pretty uniform that moving because of economic instability can trigger all sorts of problems with academics, grade-level retention, and behavior. It's different in the case of voluntary moves where a family moves to improve their living situation.
With school switching, education researchers and practitioners zero in on changes within a school year. And research has shown very clearly that within-year switching can lead to poor academic performance and lower chances of graduating. We looked at whether kids switched schools between school years, which can also be difficult and unstable for children.
When students switch schools, it's also bad for the classroom and the school. The teacher isn't teaching the same group of kids who have all learned the same curriculum. In the District, we didn't see particularly high concentrations of foreclosed students in any one school, but that's likely because we have a great deal of school choice here. Kids can go to school anywhere in the city. In places like New York City or Baltimore, where students tend to go to school where they live, you do see schools with high concentrations of students affected by foreclosure.
4. What policy recommendations do you think would minimize foreclosure's effects on students?
There are reforms that take money and personnel and those that don't. Regarding reforms that take money, schools could extend to foreclosed students the services provided under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Services Act, such as providing school supplies and transportation subsidies to help the student get to and from their original school. The McKinney-Vento Act also ensures that homeless students can continue to attend their original schools. But we think that that these subsidies aren't reaching all homeless kids to begin with and finding additional resources isn't realistic in this budgetary climate.
The low-cost option is improving communication between housing counselors and education practitioners and making them aware of each other's policies and rules. It doesn't take much. Housing counselors who know school policy can tell families in foreclosure that their children don't have to switch schools midyear if they move. School counselors or teachers who recognize that a student is having housing issues could share information about housing counselors and also let renters know of their rights—that they don't have to move.
The problem is that everyone's busy and they don't always have access to information outside their field—educators and housing counselors may not cross paths routinely. Getting these two groups together is one of our goals. When we showed our report to D.C. Public Schools, they asked us for brochures on housing counselors and asked us who to call. Just having that information for their homelessness liaisons to share with students can help. Also, the Urban Institute is holding roundtables this fall to get housing and education people together in the D.C. region and in Baltimore, to go over findings, and to figure out best practices for students.
5. What early findings can you share with us about the third report—the cross-site report?
It's an analysis of what we found in Baltimore, New York City, and D.C.—which are all National Neighborhood Indicators partners. We don't think they are representative of all urban areas, but they do yield some interesting comparisons.
So far, we're seeing some similar trends too. For example, foreclosures are encouraging school switching in New York City as well. The exit rate, though, is quite different. Examining two-year datasets, we looked at how many students were affected by foreclosure but weren't on the rolls in the second year. These kids moved out of the system in the second year, dropped out of school, enrolled in a private school, or weren't listed because of a data error. New York has an approximately 7 percent exit rate, while D.C.'s rate is closer to 17 percent. Foreclosed students in D.C. exited at a 21 percent rate. The big issue driving this difference is the high mobility rates between Prince George's County and the District. New Yorkers are more likely to stay in the city, while many D.C. families frequently move between D.C. and Maryland. The next big research question is tracking interstate moves, but it's not easy.
Researchers have studied why homeowners go into foreclosure and they've studied what happens to neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreclosure. But little is known about what happens to people after foreclosure. Tracking people, especially kids, is hard—especially when we're talking about an already mobile population that's just been thrown for another loop. So we think this is an exciting opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of families after foreclosure hits and work on policies to help them.