As a real-estate agent in a family of real-estate agents, state representative Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) knows all about the close connection between house values and school quality. “When I work with [homebuyers],” she says, “the single most important thing they always ask is, ‘How are the schools?’ You could show them a Frank Lloyd Wright house with all kinds of architectural amenities, but if the community’s schools aren’t good, they will pass it by. There are two basic building blocks of healthy communities: good schools and good housing.” 

That’s why Yarbrough took the lead with state senator Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) in sponsoring the Good Housing Good Schools bill (SB 220) that both houses of the state legislature passed last spring and that Governor Blagojevich signed into law on August 21st with little fanfare. Now the next big hurdle is finding money for the plan. Martinez and others are meeting with the Illinois State Board of Education to work out a funding proposal.

The legislation will give a small financial boost to the school district in any Illinois municipality that approves new construction or renovation of affordable housing (generally defined as housing that people with incomes of only 60 to 80 percent of the local median income can afford). Each two-bedroom unit of affordable housing will bring the local school district $1,120; for an additional bedroom, the funding bonus goes up by $560. Only multi-family housing—townhouses and condos—will be eligible. This is a government-to-government incentive: developers get nothing and spend nothing, but a town board that breaks down some of the intransigent resistance to affordable housing leverages a small funding boost for its schools. That money is then paid by the state. Massachusetts already has a similar program.

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), a Chicago nonprofit that advocated for the plan, says a town that approves 45 affordable two- and three-bedroom units would secure about $60,000 for the school district, enough to pay one teacher’s salary. Robin Snyderman, MPC’s housing director, notes that the program is designed to bring new funding to the school districts, not “take money from one place and put it in another.”    She estimates that the plan would have funneled about $1.5 million to school districts in 2006 (for the roughly 1,200 new homes that would have qualified for the incentive) and expects that the figures for 2008 would be about the same. “It’s a modest program,” Snyderman says. “It’s not a long-term fix for the disconnect between affordable housing and good schools.”

But Yarbrough is optimistic that the plan can make a difference—and that it can get funded. “We have a $59-billion budget in this state,” she says. “It’s not right to say we can’t afford to do things that help our schools. We need to prioritize our dollars for our communities.”