The School Children Conundrum

Due to school enrollment increasing sharply and unexpectedly each year since 2009[i], the Town of Lexington created an “Enrollment Working Group,” to better understand why enrollment had increased and better forecast it moving forward.  They released an interim report on March 11 and found that the problem wasn’t increased birth rates or new construction of single-family homes, but rather an in migration of families moving to apartments and condominiums.  In fact, 105% of the net growth was attributable to condos and apartments[ii].

The idea that the burgeoning school population is being caused by children residing in small apartments was disconcerting to affordable housing advocates, who feared this revelation could lead to decreasing support for multifamily housing in general and affordable housing specifically.  However, the increased enrollment seen in Lexington does not correlate to an increase in the number of apartments and condos in Lexington, rather it is evidence that more children are living in these types of dwellings.  An article the Boston Globe published in May, called “Home prices in the suburbs regularly top $1 million,” may shed some light on why more children are living in apartments and condos in Lexington.  This article revealed that only 19 of the 67 homes then on the market in Lexington were priced under a million dollars, making it extraordinarily difficult for young families to buy into Lexington[iii].  The article even profiles a manager for a consulting firm, with two children, who recently sold a home in Billerica and is “now renting in Lexington with hopes of landing a house by the end of the year,” in an effort to have his children attend the Lexington schools.  Lexington schools are seen as desirable, so families are going to go to some lengths to get their children in these schools despite the lack of availability of moderately –priced single-family homes.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is a regional planning agency that serves 101 municipalities in greater Boston, including Lexington, and takes a regional approach to the demographic challenges we currently face.  In January, MAPC released a Report about population and housing demands for the region through 2040.  The full report can be found here, or the executive summary be found here.  The report shows that the Massachusetts population is aging and that in order to maintain a healthy economy capable of supporting this aging population, we must create 435,000 new homes by 2040, nearly two-thirds of which must be multifamily homes.  .  Regionally, Greater Boston’s population of school-age children peaked years ago; it’s now 6 percent below what it was in the year 2000, and will likely slide another 6 to 9 percent over the coming decades. The big-picture worry is not about having too many children, but having too few taxpayers to pay for their schooling[iv].

Affluent suburban communities are scared of new housing, let alone affordable housing, because it might increase school enrollment in a manner than isn’t sustainable without escalating taxes.  MAPC’s data is telling us that we don’t need any more large homes for families, what we need is smaller homes for seniors who would then vacate their larger homes to the next generation of families.  Yet, these affluent communities are finding that if they build the smaller one and two-bedroom homes, they are still being occupied by families with school-age children.  The challenge is creating multifamily housing that will appeal to young professionals and empty nesters, while also ensuring an adequate stock of moderately-priced single-family homes.  Those who take a regional perspective should work with suburban communities to focus smaller, multifamily homes in downtown areas, where transportation, entertainment and other amenities may be within walking distance and will appeal to young professionals and empty nesters.  The greater Boston region needs more homes of all kinds, and creative minds should not allow school children, who we all need, to be the excuse for some communities to prevent development.

[i] In total, enrollment has increased 7.12%, from 6,169 students in September 2009 to 6,608 students in October 2013.

[ii] Pg. 25

[iii] HUD defines families who spend more than 30% of their income as “cost burdened.”  Assuming a buyer would have a down payment equal to 20% of the purchase price, and would mortgage the rest at 4% over 30 years, it would require an income of nearly $153,000 to afford only the mortgage.  This does not include tax, insurance, utilities or upkeep.

[iv] McMorrow, Paul. “Four Hard Truths about Housing.” The Boston Globe (Boston) 21 January 2014.

  • Great article – useful to help diffuse arguments about the “burden on the school systems”. Heard it last night at the Natick Selectman’s meeting.

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