Democracy Is an Act of Inclusion: Why Home Matters in Election Season


If you list the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—generally considered to be the most highly developed, democratic nations in the world—and you rank them by the percent of citizens who voted in the last major election, the United States will come in at number 31.

This week and next, our leaders are gathering to nominate their candidates for president, where they will proclaim, as they always do, that the United States is the paragon of democracy. They will declare that the people’s voices have been heard and that the candidates before them represent the true wishes of the public.

Naturally, they will not reference voter turnout.

Of the people who are eligible to vote in this country, approximately 36 percent did so in the last national election. That means, two years ago, nearly two out of every three citizens didn’t participate in the democratic process.

It’s not hard to see why. Over the last 50 years, Americans have lost faith in their politicians, from a time when over 70 percent said they trusted government to only 20 percent today. Psychologists have found that people vote less when they distrust the system.

This does not bode well for either party. Americans are significantly more dissatisfied with their candidates this year than they have been in most election cycles.

When this disillusionment doesn’t result in disengagement, it may veer toward riskier, anti-establishment candidates. Economists call this phenomenon “gambling for resurrection.” It often results in people regretting their decision because they only compounded their losses.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we know how to rebuild much of the trust that has been lost. A wealth of sociological research has demonstrated that the key to trust is, not surprisingly, people. The more people in your social network—the more friends and neighbors and family members you know and have and feel connected with—the more involved you tend to be in collective institutions. We care about others when we see them as a part of our lives.

It’s a simple insight, but a powerful one: Community is a key ingredient in democracy.

Community has been fraying in this country. Americans have become increasingly segregated by class and race, sorting into like-minded neighborhoods cut off from the views and experiences of the rest of the population. We now drive greater and greater distances to live apart from one another, and we have invested less and less in the infrastructure needed to bring us together.

We are, quite literally, a people divided.

Our housing policies, unfortunately, do not address this reality. For too long, they have focused almost exclusively on homeownership, but housing is about more than just homeownership. Housing is about neighborhoods. Housing is about communities. Housing is a commitment to be invested in the nation in which we live, whether we rent or own, for the long term. The sociological research teaches that we care when we feel connected, not just when we have wealth accumulating.

As Americans, we all care about the future of our nation, but we may not feel connected to it. We may feel, especially in this election season, that it is moving further and further from our grasp. This is not a good feeling, and it is not what our founders intended. But if we disengage now, we dishonor their sacrifice.

The hope that this nation has always represented, to me and to everyone I know, has not been found on a convention stage or a national television. It has been in my own backyard, where my family and my friends and my community have always made this country the home I love. And so, in this turbulent election season, I urge you to find strength in the communities around you, and in so doing, I think you will find that trust is not dead. It is all around us, if only we remember the fundamental fact that democracy is an act of inclusion—and therefore, it only works if we all participate and we all care.

1968 Memphis Home Will Be Remade Into a Flexible, Sunny Haven


As a result of the Home Today, Home Tomorrow design competition, a house in Tennessee will be fully retrofitted for a veteran family.

The “Re-Defining Home: Home Today, Home Tomorrow” competition invited architects and designers around the country to submit plans to renovate a home in Memphis, which will be gifted to a veteran family this fall. Hosted by Home Matters, AARP, the AARP Foundation, and the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, the competition asked entrants to design a structure that accommodates aging-in-place and incorporates Universal Design principles, as at least one member of the receiving family will be over the age of 50. The budget for the remodel was $75,000.

The three winning design teams were announced today. The first-place prize goes to Gabriel Espinoza, Carmen Velez, and Timothy Gargiulo, three junior architects practicing in New York City. Their proposal will be integrated into the home, and the renovated structure will be unveiled in November 2016.

The existing dwelling featured a number of small, cramped rooms and tired finishes. Far from accessible to a person of limited mobility, the layout presented a clear challenge to the entrants of the competition to create a more dynamic spatial flow. Another obstacle: the house was only accessible via several steps up to the front door, meaning that if a resident required a wheelchair at any point in the future, they wouldn’t have a way to enter their home. The point of the challenge was to come up with a flexible design solution that wouldn’t require extensive retrofits down the line, ensuring that the residence would be a comfortable place for a family to live for the long haul.

Get a glimpse of the winning submission below, and head to Home Matters for more details about the first, second, and third place entries.

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The winning design highlights community interaction. Planter beds in the front yard not only give the residents the opportunity to take up gardening (a hobby with proven benefits for the elderly), but the garden also has the potential to become a communal space that invites neighbors’ participation.

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The main intervention proposed by the winners is a glass addition on one end of the structure; along with introducing ample natural light, it also further connects the residence to the neighborhood. A deck with outdoor dining tables flanks this glass room, and a carport provides sheltered parking off the street.

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By changing the grade of the site, the architecture team eliminates the need for steps, so the entrance to the house is flush with the front yard.

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Additional garden boxes are installed off the rear facade. Photovoltaic panels top the carport, allowing future cost savings for the residents.

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In addition to the exterior sun screens, interior shades can be lowered to limit exposure and visibility when desired.


In the video above, hear how the winning team came up with their proposal.

The Invisible Cost of College: Students Who Can’t Afford a Secure Home


I love teaching. I love getting to know my students, challenging them to think in new ways, and engaging them in a conversation centered around important questions. I love seeing their passion to solve great problems, and I love sharing what I’ve learned to help them solve those problems. That’s why I write blog posts like this one. Last November, for example, I wrote about homelessness. I talked about the homeless Los Angelenos I passed by on my way to the airport. I felt for them. I vowed to help them. But it wasn’t until I started writing this post that it occurred to me that some of them could be my students.

At least 56,000 college students are homeless in the United States today. Some have been found to attend the University of Southern California, where I teach. Just down the road from us, California State University has found that one-tenth of its students is homeless. If true, we are significantly underestimating the problem nationwide, because most of these students don’t tell the federal government that they’re homeless when they apply for federal aid. We really have no idea how high the number goes.

How is this possible?

Let’s start with the fact that room and board at the average public, four-year college costs more than the tuition itself. Next, remind yourself that the student housing isn’t available when school isn’t in session. This makes children from abusive families or without families, even when they get student housing, especially vulnerable; they can’t go home for Christmas like everybody else.

The problem is so severe that college students in one survey were three times as likely to be living in a homeless shelter as the rest of the city’s residents. In another city, 68 percent of homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 21 had attended school that year. Far from the stereotypical portrait of homelessness in America, these kids are smart and studying and striving. And they’re struggling to get to school safe and on time, let alone pass their courses.

They’re not the only ones struggling.

At City University of New York, 42 percent of students were “housing insecure,” with problems ranging from not having enough money to pay rent, to leaving because they felt unsafe in their home, to experiencing foreclosure. In Wisconsin, Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the country’s leading experts in higher education, surveyed students receiving financial aid and was shocked by what she found. “We expected to hear them tell us that they were having trouble affording their books or buying a laptop,” she said, “but what we heard about was food insecurity; one student told us that she was living in a shelter.”

College is expensive. We all hear the stories about soaring tuition and burdensome loans, and those concerns are well-founded. But they are only part of the picture.

A college career, like everything else in our lives, begins at home, where we study and sleep and have our breakfast before each day of school. An overwhelming body of research has shown that schoolchildren perform poorly and develop slowly when their home environment is stressful or unsafe or unaffordable. Why would we expect it to be any different when these children graduate and go off to college?

This hard reality was an important motivation for why Enterprise Community Partners started its Make Room campaign. The goal of Make Room is to put a spotlight on housing insecurity and galvanize forces to fight to prevent and eliminate it. Great progress has been made, and I’m hopeful that its effectiveness will only grow in the coming months and years. (Full disclosure: I serve on the Enterprise board.)

That campaign aside, when we look at what’s happening out in the field we can see that solutions exist. The state of Washington is partnering with Tacoma Community College to target Housing Choice Vouchers to full-time students who are homeless. The state of California is requiring its colleges to give foster youth priority for housing. Other colleges have hired administrators solely to find and assist homeless students. But, sadly these independent programs are not enough.

The great challenges of our time do not exist in any one silo, but rather at the interstices between them. When I was at HUD, we spoke often about “housing as a platform” and the many ways that housing matters for issues far afield from basic shelter. The problem of housing insecurity for students, with its negative effects, is a classic example of this, and recognizing this reality points to a pathway to systemic success.

Only by creating a dialogue between leaders in both higher education and housing can we solve either problem. Better, more affordable housing will improve education, and better, more affordable education will improve housing.

Once you realize the connection, it’s impossible not to see it everywhere you look. If you do, you’ll see something astonishing: an entire generation that wants so badly to study and learn and make something of themselves that they are willing to make deep sacrifices so that the lack of a secure home does not deter them in the classroom.

They are the reason I teach. They are the future.