Reading, Writing, Evicted: Portland's housing crisis is an education story

Early on in the reporting for "Reading, Writing, Evicted," I went to a school to better understand how the housing crisis affected students there. The after-school program coordinator told me she was glad I'd come and made an observation I've been thinking about ever since:

"You always hear from the people who make the rules. Rarely do you hear from those affected by the rules. Why is that?"

This, I thought, was a great question and it served as a guide for why I wanted to tell this story.

Portland's housing crisis is talked about constantly in City Hall as a public policy problem centered on where people live.

But our city's failure to provide enough affordable housing is also an education problem.

Schools are powerless to change the city's rents or make rules to regulate them. But if you want to understand the consequences that come with being a city that prices people out, go into a gentrifying neighborhood. Find a classroom. Learn.

Educators in Portland schools that feel the brunt of the problem think about housing just as much as Portland politicians. Maybe more so. That's because even though educators aren't in charge of policy, daily they must mitigate fallout from high rents.

At The Oregonian/OregonLive, I'm charged with writing about the state's largest school district: Portland Public Schools. So, when I read last year that a rent hike at a single apartment complex threatened to drive away 5 percent of an elementary school's students before the end of the school year, I paid attention. I wasn't the only one. County officials took an unusual step. The county offered to pay the families' rent so the children could finish out the school year.

Around that time, the school's PTA president pointed out to me that more than a dozen other children had left the school due to housing costs before people began to pay attention.

That stuck with me. I felt The Oregonian/OregonLive had an obligation to tell the story of how schools live with the harmful effects of high rents. I wanted to show the big picture of what school churn looks like in the city. I wanted to introduce readers to the people who are hit the hardest by the issue yet have the smallest voice: children.

That's what "Reading, Writing, Evicted" is about.

An interactive map created by The Oregonian/OregonLive data team allows readers to see which schools are hit hardest by turnover and where they're located in the city. The numbers tell a story of privilege: Wealthier, whiter schools see stability. Schools that serve low-income students and children of color face much larger amounts of school churn.

A no-cause eviction meant Jaden, 14, had to switch school districts. The move also meant he needed a support math class.

A no-cause eviction meant Jaden, 14, had to switch school districts. The move also meant he needed a support math class.

Switching schools isn't always cause for concern. Many children experience planned family moves between academic years without harm. But moves stemming from an unforeseen rent hike or no cause evictions don't tend to be the kind that enable a comfortable fresh start. Multiple studies have found that changing schools negatively impacts students' academic progress, class participation and sense of well-being. Research says that is particularly true for low-income students and, moreso, for children who move multiple times. For children who look toward education as the tool that will help them pull themselves out of poverty, another setback is something they can't afford. 

In "Reading, Writing, Evicted," you'll hear stories of children who have been hit by no-cause evictions or rent increases at the elementary, middle and high school level.

The parents in "Reading, Writing, Evicted" want what every parent wants for their child: the best.

If the Portland school board so much as ponders a boundary change in a well-heeled community, parents and students show up in droves to tell board members about how youngsters in that neighborhood have grown up with the assurance they'll go to a certain school. To rip that promise away, these people say, would be unconscionable.

That same promise is quietly broken all the time in certain segments of the city by rent increases and no-cause evictions. Yet the public doesn't generally hear from those parents, even though they care just as much about their child's education.

That's why voices of affected parents, teachers and students are the core of "Reading, Writing, Evicted."

[This story was originally published by The Oregonian.]