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Viewpoint: Affordable housing is an education issue

by Chris Naticchia

Now that the state has released its new housing unit allocations and assigned Claremont responsibility to zone for over 1,600 units—a quarter of them low- and very-low income—we’re likely to see increased attention from residents to housing affordability. 

Clearly, affordable housing is a pressing, humanitarian issue: people who can’t afford housing often sleep in their cars or on the streets. It’s also an issue of intergenerational justice, since the lack of affordable housing unfairly freezes out younger generations from the opportunity to build equity by owning homes. But what may not seem so obvious is this: Affordable housing is an education issue too—one that hits us locally.

Affordable housing is an education issue not merely because parents who work two jobs to pay the rent or who worry constantly about eviction aren’t able to help their kids with homework as easily as parents who don’t face such obstacles. Unless we make headway on it, our school system as a whole is likely to suffer because a key ingredient of school quality is stable funding, which in California depends on stable enrollment.

But the school district, faced with declining enrollments from Claremont families, has accepted transfer students from other districts rather than face funding cuts and school closures. Currently, more than 1700 students (26 percent) of our district’s enrollment are transfers—the equivalent of nearly two of our seven elementary schools.

But other districts, including those from whom we receive transfers, are experiencing enrollment declines as well, and may decide not to allow students to transfer to maintain funding. In fact, one neighboring district, facing the prospect of closing one or two elementary schools, has cut the flow of transfer students.

While we are compensated for this by increasing transfer students from elsewhere, our total enrollment still dropped last year by 200 students. In short, we can’t count on inter-district transfers to make up for declining enrollments from Claremont families.

If birth rates were to rise in Claremont, there might be grounds for optimism.  But as a recent report from the Southern California Association of Governments indicates, we’re aging as a community. 

Over the last decade, the number of residents aged 65 and over increased from 6,000 to nearly 6,750, while those aged 5 to 20 declined from 8,900 to 8,000 and those aged 21 to 34 declined by a few hundred. It’s not likely we’ll make up for declining enrollments with increased birth rates either.

How will we make up for declining enrollments without relying on increased birth rates or inter-district transfers? The answer is to entice more young families, couples and individuals—those who already have or who may soon have school-aged children—to move to Claremont. That, of course, depends crucially on our stock of affordable housing.

The alternative is to wait and hope for birth rates to increase or for other districts to supply us with transfer students. But then we are less masters of our own destiny and more dependent on others.

We also risk school closures, a path we’ve been down before with repercussions still felt today, over 40 years later:  a bruising fight, complete with the sacking of a principal and a board recall election, to keep Sycamore Elementary open (forever memorialized in “The Recall,” a video on YouTube), and the closure of La Puerta Intermediate School, with the decades-long ordeal to find a suitable use for or buyer of that property. While it may not happen this year or next, it could happen within a decade if current trends continue.

If the preceding remarks are reasonably plausible, they invite us to see the issue of affordable housing in Claremont in a new light. It becomes harder to deflect responsibility for addressing the crisis elsewhere, because the impacts now approach our own doorsteps.

The risks of inaction are present. We can’t run down the clock. Let’s continue to make sure these matters receive the local attention they deserve.

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