Questioning the Development=Kids Equation

by Roger Colton, Town Meeting Member
People may have read the Guest Opinion in today’s Citizen-Herald about the new Library.  I want to set aside the arguments against the Library and address a comment toward the end of that opinion piece that is just plain wrong, both factually and with the policy implications implied.
The writer complains (yes, I took it as a “complaint”) that the O’Neil and Cushing Square developments will send more than 200 new children to our schools.  Without giving you MY perspective, let me just give you the findings out of the most recent comprehensive study of the connection between new developments, school-age children, and costs to a community.
“Not long ago, one of this report’s co-authors conducted a public meeting in a small, desirable town on the North Shore. Our firm canvassed a variety of planning topics, from open space and riverfronts to traffic, affordable housing and the community’s tax base. Several residents expressed concern about the impact of a large multi-family development on their schools. When asked to estimate the number of children a 200-unit rental development might bring into town, participants replied spontaneously: ‘200!’

Needless to say, they questioned our sanity when we said the number might be as low as 12 or as high as 75. “It would be easy for us to argue that new multi-family developments do not generate many school children because often, the statement is accurate and verifiable. In most of the communities we have worked in, from cities to rural areas in Western Massachusetts, we find much lower numbers of school-age children in new townhouses and multi-family units than in single-family homes. However, there are noteworthy exceptions.

“In most cases, multi-family developments built since 1990 have not contributed significantly to the rise in school enrollments that occurred in many communities across the state. New single-family homes and in some towns, a high rate of turnover in older single-family homes, generated a majority of the state’s school enrollment growth. Older multi-family developments with apartments sized for family occupancy continue to house many children, in part because they offer one of the few choices available to lower-income families. “Compared to rates of population and school enrollment growth, local government expenditures for education and community services increased at significantly higher rates overall over the past decade. Many communities incurred additional long-term debt, mainly for three types of public investment: school construction, expansion and modernization projects, water and sewer projects, and acquisitions of land for conservation or municipal purposes. Across the Commonwealth, general fund expenditures for education, public safety, debt service, and employee health insurance increased faster than expenditures for other local government functions. These trends were fueled not only by new growth, but also state-local policies and community preferences. Given the characteristics of households in new multi-family developments and the limited number of multi-family units that were permitted and built during the 1990s, it is very unlikely that new multi-family housing has produced a negative fiscal impact on cities and towns.”
Today’s Guest Opinion is an example of someone who is wrong, both in her stated facts and in her implied policy consequences. If you would like to read the whole report, you can Google: Housing the Commonwealth’s School Age Children: The Implications of Multi-family Housing Development for Municipal and School Expenditures, Judith Cutler and John Connery, August 2003. Of, you can simply go download the full report and read it.