Guest Columns

Will More Housing Overwhelm Your School District? Check the Math

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

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By Timothy Foley 

Even though Westchester County is struggling with an acute housing shortage, any time a proposal to build multifamily housing above a certain size is considered in a town or village, you hear the exact same well-worn concerns. Won’t this overwhelm the school district? How are we going to pay for all the new schoolchildren? How will this affect my own child’s education? 

The concerns are very real and completely understandable. They’re also, ironically, bad math.

We formed the Welcome Home Westchester campaign with our partners to drive a new conversation around housing. The Housing Needs Assessment put out by the county Planning Department found that we needed 11,703 new units of housing just to meet present-day demand.

This housing shortage affects the vibrancy and economy of our region. It particularly impacts employers who might want to relocate but worry that their employees can’t afford to live in our communities, those who commute into Westchester for work, seniors on a fixed income, millennials who want to move back to the area they grew up in, people of color, middle-class families and so many others.

But this housing shortage isn’t an accident. It’s the result of decades of inefficient and short-sighted local land use decisions, many of which weigh unsubstantiated fears over what may happen over the facts of what actually did happen. 

When it comes to the far-from-unique ghost stories about school impact, we get it. For most parents, there’s no more important investment than their child’s education, and it’s no wonder that so often this becomes the lens through which residents look at the question of housing needs in their community.

But as with so many other ghost stories and fearful predictions, there’s very little true analysis behind the assumption. Even worse, there’s almost never an attempt by neighborhood defenders to run an after-action analysis to learn which public hearing predictions were true and which were false

So, we checked the math for them. The BRI and the Welcome Home Westchester campaign retained the firm 4ward Planning Inc. to conduct an analysis of what had happened – past tense—within Westchester County suburban school districts both in terms of enrollment and school taxes and school budgets when large multifamily developments opened.

The study looked at multifamily developments of 100 units or more that were built in Westchester County towns and villages within the past 10 years. Bottom line, there is no data from recent large multifamily developments to substantiate the fears of a surge in student enrollment. Indeed, not only have these projects been harmless to the districts, but they have also brought with them eye-popping financial surpluses which have been to the benefit of existing students and residents.

In none of the multifamily residential projects with at least 100 units in a town or village did the children associated with the project and enrolled in the local school district equal or exceed 1 percent of the school’s total enrollment.

It’s no secret that many of our school districts have seen years of declining enrollment, fueled by the fact that the 30-to-44 age demographic has been the most consistently declining cohort over the last two censuses. In many of these communities, total enrollment continued to decline overall, even with the children who moved into these new homes.

But even in the communities where school enrollment went up, new neighborhood children associated with the multifamily projects analyzed represented only a small percentage of the school districts’ enrollment increase. In fact, the ratio of school children to units across these new developments was less than 1 child for every 10 homes.

With a ratio like that, it’s no surprise to see a positive fiscal benefit for the school districts. With the overwhelming number of units paying new taxes but contributing no new children, the projects naturally generated a net positive in school taxes, even after taking into account the costs of educating enrolled school children living in the new housing. The estimated one-year financial benefits ranged from a low of $333,000 to a high of $1.2 million per district. The median financial benefit for one year for these Westchester school districts where 100 units of new multifamily housing were built was $465,544.

In all cases, the percentage of school tax revenue from each housing project going to surplus instead of the estimated costs of educating the children associated with that new housing was sky high, with the median surplus as a percentage of school tax revenue at 85.4 percent.

So, it turns out the dire predictions about negative impacts to schools, like most ghost stories, fade away in the light of day.

If we’re going to have a new conversation about building housing, we need to start by realizing that the benefits don’t just accrue to children moving into the community, but to the existing students, residents and taxpayers.

Timothy Foley is executive vice president and CEO of The Building and Realty Institute (BRI), the largest trade organization serving the industry in Westchester County.

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