High-priced housing is not a typical topic for a high school social studies class. This year, students in five Massachusetts high schools learned about the lack of affordable housing and then developed action plans to improve options for low-and moderate- income families in their communities. The combined instruction-community service project was so successful that at least four additional schools have adopted it this year.
EDC and the Massachusetts-based Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), with funding from Bank of America and Eastern Bank, created Understanding Affordable Housing through Service-Learning. Developed jointly by EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs (HHD) and Center for Family, School, and Community (FSC), the project features six lessons that cover the economic, political, legal, and social factors that contribute to and result from the current shortage of affordable housing and presents strategies to improve the situation. The teachers’ guide includes background information, handouts for student activities, and a PowerPoint presentation depicting affordable housing developments throughout Massachusetts.
“It is critical for students to understand how widespread housing difficulties are in this state and the extensive impact of housing affordability on not just individual households, but also communities,” says Chris Miara, HHD Project Director.
The project goes beyond engaging students just in the classroom setting by giving them opportunities to perform service projects with local organizations involved with affordable housing. Representatives from local community-based housing organizations (CBOs) visit the classrooms and present information about affordable housing and the work of their organizations. Additionally, CBOs and other community partners provide their expertise and opportunities for community service to the students, allowing students to identify their own promising solutions and work with government agencies and community groups to address local housing problems.
“The goal of service learning is to engage kids,” says Leslie Hergert, FSC Project Director. “This project does just that, by helping them understand how their local government works, and how policy decisions regarding public housing happen.”
For many families in the U.S., finding decent housing they can afford is an ongoing challenge. “Oftentimes, when people find housing in their price range, it is located far from their workplace, not near public transportation, or in a different community from their children’s schools, family, and friends,” explains Miara. “Location and quality of housing affects many aspects of families’ lives, including the ability to maintain steady employment, the quality of children’s education, and expenses for transportation and other living costs.”
Housing in Massachusetts
This is especially true in Massachusetts, the third least-affordable market for renters in the U.S. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to have lost population two years in a row, fueled in part by lack of affordable housing. This lack is a key contributor to social and economic disparities among Massachusetts residents. And because people do not understand how this issue affects low- and moderate-income families, they may not support policies that will improve the situation.
High school students, especially, may not realize how difficult it can be to find suitable housing in today’s real estate market. With levels of civic engagement among young people at record lows, adolescents are unfamiliar with how government, especially at the local level, works, and how they can affect social change.
Understanding Affordable Housing through Service-Learning works to change that. Students in the program may participate in many different service-learning opportunities, including:
- Creating an educational brochure on affordable housing for a CBO
- Hosting a community workshop on affordable housing
- Surveying residents about their knowledge and attitudes of affordable housing and publishing the results
- Writing letters to the editor of local publications about their experiences with affordable housing and CBOs.
Students in Worcester, Massachusetts’s South High School’s Service-Learning After-School Program and U.S. Government classes participated in the project and worked with a non-profit housing developer in the city. Their Service-Learning Coordinator, Maureen Binienda, said the program affected her students at every level. “When we toured the affordable housing in the community, we met the developers. Following that meeting, three students whose families who were in need of affordable housing ended up contacting the sellers to inquire about housing for themselves.” She said the class will do a whole year theme on affordable housing next year. “We have made so many new contacts and we are planning a ‘how to buy a home’ class and similar trainings integrated in our academics for next year. This project has opened up so many wonderful opportunities for us.”
Originally published on November 1, 2006