A Lifetime of Homes: Lessons from a Career in Housing Policy


I am often asked, after living in various homes for fifty years and studying homes for roughly half that time, whether I think that America’s housing situation has gotten better over the years. The short answer is, I do not.

The long answer is a bit more personal.

I moved into the first house that felt like home when I was eleven years old. It was a two-story colonial that my parents bought in the suburbs of south New Jersey. They were a black couple in a mostly white neighborhood circa 1977, and they were scared. One reason for fear was obvious. This being only nine years after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, we knew there was a reasonable chance that we would not be welcomed and accepted, let alone treated fairly.

The other reason for fear was the risk of financial ruin. Like so many African-American families in the 70s, my family did not have a large nest egg or a wealthy relative to draw upon when buying their home. Instead, they stretched their resources to realize something they only dreamed about when they were growing up: owning a home and living the American dream.

It’s hard to say exactly what it is that makes a place a home. For my parents, it was partly that they wanted their children to go to good schools.  Jobs were another reason for the move. My father was an engineer for Seagram’s, and my mother worked in advertising at Rohm and Haas, and our house was relatively centrally located to both offices.

Overall, though, my parents understood what I have only progressively come to understand over a career of research and policy development: housing is a platform. It is not just a building or even a city block. As I have shown on this blog over the past year, housing lies at the very heart of our health, our education, our economy, our public safety, and our individual success.

By these measures, our homes have failed far too many of our citizens.

We’ve met many of these citizens on this very website. There were the elderly whose homes didn’t allow them to age in place without suffering worsening health outcomes. There were the middle-aged white Americans who were increasingly turning to drugs and suicide when they lacked the resources and support system to sustain their mental health. There were the children exposed to toxic levels of lead in their water and paint. There were the low-income families who couldn’t complain about substandard housing, lest they risk eviction and homelessness. There were the young students whose communities didn’t equip them for educational success. There were the older students who couldn’t afford the basic housing they needed to succeed in college. There were the victims of concentrated poverty, trapped in dangerous neighborhoods that stressed and damaged their residents. There were the unsophisticated borrowers, preyed upon by predatory lending, and the especially cash-strapped households, who couldn’t find affordable credit anywhere. And, of course, there were the black Americans who were prevented at every turn from accessing the wealth accumulation vehicle that built the middle class: homeownership.

These are the people to whom I and many of you have dedicated our life’s work.

I remember the home where I first found this purpose in my career. I was living in the Noe Valley, which was transitioning at the time from a working-class neighborhood into the more affluent community that it now is. I’d finished classes at Stanford, and I had just started working on my dissertation when I moved in. It wasn’t like the suburban neighborhood I grew up in. So many amenities were within walking distance, with more popping up every month. The storefronts were changing before my eyes. It was the first time that I began to think deeply about accessibility—and all the things I had access to that most Americans did not. I started researching mortgage lending, and I began to see that housing wasn’t just an end in itself. It was a means—an instrument to a way of life—and that made it so much more valuable and essential.

From San Francisco, I moved to Washington DC, where I lived on Capitol Hill. This neighborhood too was in transition, but it was further along than Noe Valley. It already had all the amenities I needed. I saw how a community could be self-sufficient, and I realized just how dependent most communities were on factors outside their control. At the Federal Reserve, I began researching community banking to understand how we could give communities the resources to shape their own destiny.

We sold the house I grew up in after my dad passed away. My mom still lives in the area, but this new house never quite feels the same as the one I grew up in. There’s always something special about that feeling you get when you’re home. You can’t fake it or replace it. You can’t even define it. But you know it’s where you’re meant to be.

It’s such a powerful experience that I’m always surprised we don’t spend more time talking about it. We spend more time at home than any other place, and yet we hardly ever hear our politicians utter the word “housing,” even when they explicitly campaign on the “American dream.”

The funny thing is, for all we idealize it, I don’t think there is such a thing as one American dream. I think we each carve out our own individual dream. I think that’s what it means to live in a free nation. When Thomas Jefferson first envisioned “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he was rejecting a European social order based strictly on lineage, rather than choice. Thus, he said, we must be free to move and trade and live where we feel truly home.

The other question I am often asked is whether I am optimistic that America’s housing situation will get better in my lifetime. The short answer is, I think it can, and I will fight everyday to see that it does.

The long answer is, well, up to us together.

When Your Livelihood Is Too Far Away: Housing as a Platform to Jobs


A couple years ago, some of my colleagues at USC set out to answer an old question with a new twist. They wanted to know how many jobs you could find if you lived in a low-income neighborhood. Specifically, they wanted to know how many jobs you could commute to.

Most Americans take it for granted that employment is place-based. You can’t work at a building that’s too far away. But what happens when you can only afford to live in a few of neighborhoods in a city, a reality that many low-income families face? How many jobs are too far away?

Four urban planners—Marlon G. Boarnet, Genevieve Giuliano, Yuting Hou, and Eun Jin Shin—decided to find out.

First, they did what urban planners have been doing for years. They collected data for a city—in this case, San Diego—and they broke it up into neighborhoods at different income levels. Then, they calculated how many jobs are within a thirty-minute commute by car or by public transit. They found, consistent with previous findings, that people in low-income neighborhoods could access nine times as many jobs by car as they could by public transit.

This, by itself, was not news. Not to urban planners, at least. But it’s surprising to most Americans. Most of us have cars, and most of us don’t live in concentrated poverty. We can get to the jobs. The people who live in these neighborhoods typically can’t, because they often don’t own a car.

Economists and planners have been studying this problem since John Kain published a seminal study in 1968. He called it “spatial mismatch”.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Kain analyzed the Detroit Area Traffic Study from 1952 and the Chicago Area Traffic Study from 1956. He found that employers were significantly less likely to hire blacks at further distances from the inner-city “ghettoes.” Importantly, it wasn’t because they couldn’t do those jobs. The occupations that didn’t employ blacks outside the ghetto were disproportionately filled by blacks inside the ghetto. They were clearly willing and able. They just couldn’t travel to the jobs.

Kain was really trying to understand the effects of housing segregation. So he asked himself, would blacks have higher employment if they lived in white neighborhoods that had the same income and occupational characteristics as them? Based on their ability to access jobs far away, he estimated that blacks would have 4,000 to 9,000 more jobs in Detroit and over 20,000 more jobs in Chicago. In both cities, spatial mismatch was leading to job loss for 15 percent of the black population.

You might think spatial mismatch isn’t as bad as it used to be. We don’t live in the Jim Crow era anymore. Does segregation still matter?

I’ve shown in previous Home Matters posts that it does matter, but consider the timeline. Kain’s data only showed us the beginning of “white flight.” In the decades after 1956, upper- and middle-income white households left the inner cities, triggering a downward spiral of tax revenue loss, government service deterioration, property value erosion, and blight. And where the workers went, the employers followed, hollowing out the job base that Kain found to be employing black workers in the cities. Rather than going away, the problem got worse.

Half a century later, Marlon Boarnet and his team have found that we’ve made far too little progress. It was what they did next, though, that surprised us all.

They realized that previous studies were missing an important part of a worker’s commute. They had measured how long it took to travel on public transit, but they didn’t measure how long it took to travel to public transit.

Most people don’t live right next to a bus stop or a subway station. They have to walk several blocks, maybe even a mile, and then they may have to do it all over again to get from their transit stop to the job itself. Urban planners call it the “first/last mile.”

When the USC researchers added the first/last mile to the commute time, the numbers changed dramatically. Instead of having access to nine times as many jobs, car drivers now had thirty times as many job options as their low-income peers who relied on public transit. That’s the magnitude of the spatial mismatch.

In a society striving for equal opportunity, 30-to-1 is a devastating failure.

Don’t let the context fool you. Spatial mismatch is not only an inner city problem. When I was at HUD, we talked a lot about “housing as a platform.” We were talking as much about housing in rural areas and in suburban communities in places like the Rust Belt, where middle-class jobs have been outsourced or automated, as we were about large cities like San Diego. No matter where you live, your home is a platform to employment.

To me, this new research suggests that the problem cannot be solved by transportation alone. Surely we would benefit from more transit stops and more creative policies to get people to transit stops, but a gap that large cannot shrink to zero unless the geography itself changes. We need more jobs in these neighborhoods.

No one should feel that they have to escape their community to survive in today’s economy, and they certainly shouldn’t feel that good jobs are out of reach, no matter how far they travel. Every time we treat a community like it is the problem, we push the jobs further away, and the mismatch grows.

There is only one truly sustainable solution: We must invest in communities that lack sufficient opportunities. We must build wealth at home, the one place where the American dream should never be too far away.