A city is unlikely to maximize its potential without attracting and retaining families with children. Yet attracting and retaining such families is perhaps the greatest obstacle the District of Columbia will face over the next several decades as it seeks to navigate the region’s ongoing population boom. And while it may not seem obvious, the real estate tax code may be an effective tool to meet the challenge.

A good problem to have

According to the 2010 Census, the D.C. metropolitan area grew by 16 percent over the last decade. Among the 10 largest metropolitan areas, this was the largest percentage increase of any non-Sunbelt metropolitan area. Growth extended beyond the suburbs, as the District itself stemmed a 60-year population decline by adding nearly 30,000 new residents.

Buoyed by government spending, related contracting, a robust legal and professional field and growing technology and biomedical industries, the D.C. area is well positioned to maintain this growth over the coming decades. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University predicts that over the next two decades the population of the greater D.C. area will increase by 1.67 million people, a 30 percent increase over the current population of 5.58 million. Compared with the problems facing shrinking metropolitan areas such as Detroit and Chicago, the District is fortunate. Nonetheless, this projected growth presents significant challenges to state and local governments.

A city of hipsters and empty-nesters?

Though the District may be spared from some of the more implacable transportation issues facing its suburban neighbors, it faces its own unique set of challenges. The most glaring, long-term impediment to growth in the District is its dismal public education system. The dearth of quality public schools renders the District inhospitable to large numbers of families with school-age children. These families, who would otherwise prefer to live in the District, are forced either to decamp for the suburbs once their children are of school age or enroll them in private schools, an option that is beyond the reach of a large swath of the populace.

This lack of quality public education effectively restricts the District’s appeal to a narrow demographic group of new residents—a fact that has not been lost on the multifamily developers who increasingly dominate D.C. residential development. Reacting to market conditions, these developers are focusing on delivering smaller, more affordable units in amenity-laden buildings. These units are, however, largely impractical for families with school-age children.

Leveraging the real property tax code

If the District wishes to avoid becoming a city increasingly composed of single professionals and empty-nesters, it must improve its public schools. While there is no shortage of competing strategies to accomplish this, research has demonstrated that increased socio-economic diversity, such as the demographic shift experienced in the District over the past decade, has a beneficial effect on public schools. In other words, without even delving into hotly contested issues like school choice or merit-based pay, the District can improve its public schools simply by nurturing a diverse population of families with school-age children.

Attracting these families presents a Catch-22 conundrum, however: The quality of public schools will improve if more diverse families move into the District, yet these families are hesitant to move into the District because of the lack of quality public schools. Solving this challenge requires innovative thinking by the District government. Policies must be enacted that simultaneously incentivize individual families to move to the District and incentivize residential developers to provide the necessary housing stock, especially in the multifamily segment. This is where a simple tinkering with the real estate tax code could pay big dividends.

It is well understood in economics that, outside of the margins, the more you tax something the less of it you get, and the less you tax something the more of it you get. This same basic principal should be applied to attracting and retaining families with school-age children. Specifically, the District should implement a child property tax credit of $1,000 for each child enrolled in D.C. public or charter schools. This credit could be claimed by either owner-occupants or landlords where the child lives.

By making this credit available to both owners and landlords, the District would not only directly motivate families to move to the District and enroll their children in D.C. schools, but it would also incentivize developers to provide the new housing necessary to support these families. This simple, easily administered tax credit would address two difficult issues simultaneously, in an efficient manner with little regulatory overhang. If the District wishes to reach its potential, it will need to enact precisely these types of policies.

Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia’s member of American Property Tax Counsel.