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Expanding Affordable Housing Access will Improve Health and Education Outcomes for Kids | Opinion

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by Julie Cassidy, Michigan Advance
March 24, 2023

Our state has long failed children, particularly those from families with low incomes, when it comes to education. 

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project, for the last two decades, Michigan has ranked near the bottom of the states in education, with the rate of fourth-graders not proficient in reading and eighth-graders not proficient in math consistently hovering around seven in 10.

We have a lot of work to do to address the myriad existing challenges – largely due to policy decisions–that have plagued Michigan for years.

Ensuring that all kids have safe, healthy homes that support their success would help the state do better. The Michigan League for Public Policy’s new report examines one way to achieve that: protecting families with housing vouchers and other non-wage sources of income from unfair treatment in the rental housing market. Sens. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Twp.) and Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) and Reps. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor) and Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) have introduced legislation to do just that. We’re proud to be part of an effort led by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness supporting these bills.

The federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program aims to help families obtain quality housing in safe and healthy neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the way it’s implemented concentrates families of color in neighborhoods and homes where they’re exposed to environmental health threats. Through its impacts on health, environmental injustice robs children of the opportunity to do their best in school and achieve their full potential.

Under the HCV program, a family receives a voucher to offset the cost of renting a home from a private landlord. In theory, this allows families freedom to choose a suitable home in a location that best meets their needs. In reality, struggling households still face many barriers to securing safe, stable homes: funding shortages and long waiting listsmean that most eligible families never actually receive a voucher, and the fact that many landlords won’t accept HCVs as payment makes it hard to find a quality home in the short time frame allowed by the program.

No child should be deprived of the chance to reach their full potential because of how their parents pay the rent.

As a result, the few families that do receive HCVs often must settle for overpriced housing that contains health and safety hazards like lead, or that’s located near a high-volume highway, hazardous waste facility or other pollution source. 

White landlords are less likely to accept HCVs than landlords of color and voucher rejection rates are highest in low-poverty neighborhoods with better schools and environmental conditions. Due to the nation’s long history of economic and housing discrimination, families that use HCVs are disproportionately Black. Source-of-income discrimination is a modern-day form of redlining that exposes struggling families to environmental risks. This contributes to higher rates of illness and disability for Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

In particular, resultant lead poisoning and asthma complications can interfere with school attendance and performance. 

Additionally, education for disabled students traditionally has been underfunded and schools discipline kids with disabilities–especially Black and Indigenous kids–more frequently and harshly than their peers without disabilities. This leads to lower on-time graduation rates, higher dropout rates, and more frequent contact with the criminal legal system. The criminalization of disability continues outside of school, leading to extreme racial and disability disparities in Michigan’s prisons and jails and violence at the hands of police.

There’s no cure-all to protect children from all of the systemic factors that lead to poor health and discrimination, but strengthening the HCV program in our state can help. 

Several Michigan communities have enacted local ordinances protecting renter families from discrimination by landlords based on their source of income. A similar law at the state level could protect all renter families, no matter where they live. Landlords in jurisdictions with such protections in place are more than twice as likely to accept families with vouchers

No child should be deprived of the chance to reach their full potential because of how their parents pay the rent. 

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