The Path Forward: Where Do We Go From Here?



I’m moving again.

I didn’t think it would happen. I’ve moved across the country several times already, you might recall. But, like many Americans, I found a new job in a new city calling to me, and I answered the call.

We’re unusual in this way in the United States. We move from city to city more than almost any other developed nation—and most of those other nations have far less distance to travel.

We have a long history of mobility. It’s one of the advances that set the New World apart from the Old. Our founders wanted us to move. They didn’t want us confined to the class we were born into or the name we were given or the land our parents could bestow on us. They wanted us to set out across this vast continent, and they didn’t want us to settle until we found a home we could call our own.

In recent years, that vision seems to have receded. The vast continent feels as if it has grown vaster. In so many ways, we appear to have grown apart: rural from urban, rich from poor, black from white, immigrant from native-born.

And so, it’s not surprising that we move less than we used to.

As mobility declines, so does our common understanding of each other. We learn less, we share less, and we empathize less. We come together less often, we bicker more frequently, and we get less done.

Moving isn’t for everyone. Many Americans are happy where they are, and they never want to leave. They are the bedrock of their communities. We would be poorer without their presence there.

But all Americans deserve the opportunity to find a place where they can flourish, a place where they truly feel home. As my colleague (and graduate student) Anthony W. Orlando has written and regularly reminds me, they deserve “a good job with good benefits in a growing economy where good schools and a safe neighborhood in a clean environment create real opportunity.” That is real freedom. That is the American dream.

I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of defining the American dream in the 21st century and why equality of opportunity is so essential to it. Instead of framing a coherent vision, we’ve wound up blaming a long line of villains, some real, some imagined: bankers, politicians, minorities, refugees, liberals, conservatives, lenders, borrowers, Baby Boomers, Millennials…

And all the while, our public discourse has grown more toxic, our political institutions more gridlocked, and our worldviews more blinkered. If we continue down this path, the day will come when we have narrowed our field of vision so much that we can’t see anyone but ourselves anymore.

I don’t want to see that happen. That’s why I’m headed to a new city, where I can work to help shape the new narrative we need and harness the tools that can bring it to life in communities across the nation.

In today’s era, where so much emphasis is given to differences, I think we might be surprised to learn just how similar these communities are. We tend to think of our city’s challenges and virtues as unique—and in some ways, they are. But moving from city to city, I am struck most by the familiarity of concerns that repeat themselves across incomes, across ethnicities, across generations.

Over the last couple years, I tried to give a voice to these concerns on this blog. While my new job will take me away from this particular privilege, I ask that you take up the torch in my absence and light the path before us to the New American Dream. Make it a path of unity, of openness, of positivity, and of respect. And no matter how difficult the path may get or how hopeless it may sometimes seem, keep moving, ever forward, until that blessed day when you finally find yourself home.

Making Homes For All Ages


How can a small, tired house be remodeled to provide for a family of all ages is a question many people face but few people know how to make a reality.

That’s because while this approach towards improving the functionality of a home while maintaining its appeal is known as universal design (UD) and much attention is justifiably paid to including UD features in new home construction, many people don’t know they can do some simple things to make their home more ageless.  It is true that in new homes, the added cost is minimal and the integrated UD features accommodate almost any home style. But we can’t rely exclusively on building our way into better homes for our 21st Century demographic. There are so many old fashioned existing homes in the US, we need to address how remodeling can play a role in upgrading the function of already-built housing.

The Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge home, in Memphis TN provided a number of solutions to this challenge. While few of us can attempt a total home remodel (all at once, at least), there are many individual features that are within most of our means. And over time many of us can address one home feature after another until cumulatively, we may have created a much more livable home that can serve our family and friends throughout all of life’s changes.  Read on below, and also check out other interesting features and designs highlighted in the Challenge’s Toolkit.


The interior and exterior functional improvements to the home are fully integrated. Most of them would never be noticed as conveniences, just nice elements.

The front of the house features seamlessly integrated elements of universal design. A key UD component of any home is at least one step-free route into the house. Our Design Challenge home has step-free routes to three entry doors as well as a route from the driveway, to the backyard and back patio!  Someone can walk or roll from the driveway to the front and side decks.  Gardeners can reach the raised planters easily. The front entrance is level with the first floor and is protected from the elements by the porch roof. So, the family is protected from sun, rain, or snow when entering or exiting.


The rear patio continues the level deck, the step free entrances, the protected entries, and the raised bed planters that reduce bending and stretching when tending the plants.


In the now opened-up interior, the entry flows into the living room of the home with wider hallways and doorways as well, allowing the free movement of people. All floors are hard surfaces that are easy to clean, and easy to walk or roll across. Area rugs such as that seen in this image can always be added or removed as needed.

As we look across the entryway on the left we see a multipurpose room with multi-height storage and a murphy bed behind the wood double doors. Moveable walls can be selectively opened and closed with minimal effort. With the walls closed, the room can be used as a bedroom or guest room. When opened, as in this image, it can be used as semi-private space for sitting, reading or for home work. Open walls also allow for visual connection into and out of the room, for instance a real benefit if someone has to remain in bed for long periods.  Higher electrical outlets and lower light switches in the house suit all heights of occupants in the home. Finally, lever door handles make opening the doors simple, even if your hands are full.


Adequate lighting is an important universal design feature, especially in the kitchen preparing food in the kitchen. This home’s mix of natural, recessed, pendant, and under-wall cabinet lighting ensures that occupants of any age will have the light they need. Adjustable window covers ensure that over-lighting and glare is minimized. Multi height work surfaces allow for people of different heights to enjoy working and relaxing in the kitchen. Lever handle hardware on the kitchen sink allow users ease of use.


Pull out shelves and multi-level drawers in the kitchen base cabinets bring storage to the user. This ease of access reduces bending and reaching to get stored items. Items can also be more easily seen.


A useful feature of a universally designed home is a curbless shower, a shower floor that is level with the floor of the bathroom. The shower in this home has a large frosted glass window, which provides even natural light to the whole bathroom. The adjustable shower head allows use by tall or short users. The shower seat can be used for sitting or just resting a foot on for washing or shaving. Not seen is the blocking behind the walls for easy installation of grab bars later, if needed.


With just one full bathroom in the house, a two-height vanity accommodates tall and shorter family members.  A hidden feature that some families may like is that the lower base cabinet can be removed for seated users. Both sinks feature lever hardware for easy operation.

Meeting the Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge


We are all aging, which is a beautiful thing. But more than adding numbers to our age, we are getting older, which means adding more years of experience in this beautiful world. Along with this experience should come a recognition that we will be at a disadvantage with only blind trust in an easy future. Aging and getting older have to be met with a sense of wonder and preparation, especially when we consider that more than 30 percent of all Americans will end up in a nursing home in the later years of life. Many could avoid this outcome by preparing their homes and their environments early, in anticipation of changes that may come with each passing year.

When we think of home, we think of the place we feel most nurtured and at peace. But when certain aspects of a house or apartment go unaddressed, even a small physical handicap or prolonged illness can turn into a deal-breaker, making it impossible to live in the place we want to live. Ninety percent of all Americans want to age at home – and fulfilling that wish is possible, but only when we prepare early and rethink architecture and neighborhoods at once. This is why the Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge is such a milestone. The competition invited architects and designers from around the country to redesign a typical suburban home in Memphis (one that was designed for the young and healthy only) into a home for all ages. As an architect and a longtime advocate of design for all ages and abilities, I have learned that a home that supports our physical and social well being will very naturally evolve for us over time. For example, if we cannot get out of bed, we should be able to see outdoors; if we cannot drive to see friends, they should be able to visit us easily.

The winning scheme, a blueprint for the home’s remodel, met these goals in several ways. It eliminated all stairs for safe and smooth transitions between levels indoors and outdoors, and expanded the bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair when needed. It also included all key details in terms of appropriate task heights for a person seated in a wheelchair, while taking into account accessibility and safe grab-bar placement to make cooking, eating, bathing, and relaxing possible for all ages. The design also positioned one flexible room at a strategic location: This multipurpose room can be connected with a large open door to the living room. It’s a simple move, but magical. That one flexible room can be used as an extension of the living room, as a separate home office, or as the ground-floor bedroom for a person who is in bed for an extended period of time. Proximity to the living room and views through the large doorway allow for the inclusion of a person in bedroom in the daily social activities in the house. The house itself opens up to the neighborhood with a large expanse of windows, visually connecting to the outdoors, and, even more important, creating an informal connection to the neighbors. We all know that we are stronger within a community, and such relationship needs to be facilitated and nurtured. This house design does exactly that. It breaks down walls and invites people to engage. Just imagine what a difference it will make when a neighbor swings by to say hello and help with errands without being asked. The house, an extension of its occupants, invites people inside.


The transformation of the house was not rocket science, but it makes all the difference between aging comfortably at home and the alternative of being forced to move into a senior facility that is impersonal, and away from family, neighbors, and the activity of a community. Accomplishing that it is so easy in many ways. Hopefully knowing these simple steps wakes up the masses, and urges people to take notice that they should and can remodel a house to be age-independent and supportive of its owner all life long.

But these remodels can’t happen overnight. The key is to do this kind of work in the home early, before any physical or social challenges occur, so we can live a worry-free life. An age-friendly home is a better home. Who does not want to have a home that encourages socializing with the neighbors? Who does not want to have a bigger and more comfortable bathroom? Who does not want to have a home that is safe and secure and protects us from falls. I want that – and I am 45 years old! I am honored that I was invited as a judge for this milestone competition, and my wish is that this one house opens the eyes of all 78 million Baby Boomers in this country and encourages them to review their homes and make key changes if needed. Today is the day. Start taking these steps one at a time or all at once so you can live the life you want, all life long.

Why We Need To “Cure” Housing



As a small child I remember having a fascination with houses. Maybe it was spurred by a curiosity about other people’s homes fostered from living in a mobile home, which best accommodated frequent moves required by my father’s job. Or, perhaps it came from visiting relatives whose diverse homes ranged from farm homes door to west coast ranchers in the California hills to what seemed to me at the time like stone mansions. Regardless of the origins of my curiosity, one thing I knew was that for me home was always a safe, secure and loving place.

As a child I spent hours on playgrounds sweeping gravel with my hands to build make-believe houses that fulfilled my dreams. Whenever I came in contact with a book on architecture or design, I poured over its pages capturing them in my memory. I was fortunate, in that much of my make believe became a reality for me. Unfortunately, for many others, it is still a dream today.

My passion for housing has kept me involved with housing, working with many non-profits that seek to resolve the housing issues we face in this country. While we have seen the rise of many organizations that work to meet the need for safe, secure housing, many families still face a severe need for affordable houses to rent or buy. In addition, we have put many non-profits in competition for the limited funding and donations available to move their cause forward. In the end, we have fragmented the housing issue in order to sustain small gains in our communities.

As we enter a new year and a new opportunity in our political environment, it is time to address the issue of housing, coalesce the multiple facets of the housing issue and work toward unifying what housing means to a community. Safe, secure housing is directly tied to better health, success in education, economic opportunities and enhanced community. An investment in providing better housing will deliver high returns across all aspects of our communities.

Like many societal issues, it is hard to convince many of the need for better housing. There are multiple responses that people use to dismiss the need, from not wanting low-income housing in their neighborhood (NIMBY-ISM) to telling families to move if they can’t afford to live in their community. Those families in need don’t have any interest in living in the communities that those crying “NIMBY” oppose. These families are seeking neighborhoods with access to better transportation, parks, schools and shopping that all of us aspire to acquire. It’s time to plan communities that provide housing for mixed-income housing that is attractive and affordable so that we continue to contribute to the diversity and stability in our communities.

If we believe that we can simply tell those that can’t afford to live in our cities to relocate, we are asking to replace the workforce that supports our retail, restaurant, hotel and service industries. It’s not possible to have it both ways. You either provide housing at a level that supports this workforce or you need to increase their wages. We are at an impasse that has been created through years of believing that low-income housing projects were sufficient in addressing this issue.

This is no longer solely an issue for city, state or federal governments to resolve.

It’s time to engage business, government and community leaders in the discussion. Having worked for years to establish strategic partnerships in marketing and communications, I may view the possibilities from a different view than most. If business and government combine their influence and interests for the issue, we can face the need and unify the efforts to finding answers that work. A major company talking about the need for mixed-income housing for its employees sends a different message than a single family’s story on the evening news. While we must continue to meet the needs of families on an individual need, we must engage communities, and our nation overall, in the discussion to understand why housing is vital to collective success.

One of the reasons I have chosen to support the work of Home Matters is its commitment to raising housing and community development needs to a national level, and as a true movement. We need to redefine the public thinking, the policies and the funding about housing to better position our communities for success.  Getting the public to understand and commit to an issue that they don’t believe impacts them will require action from policymakers, companies and residents to make the connections between housing, economic success, inclusion and safety.

We are no longer able to segregate the problem to individual cities, communities or socioeconomic classes. Unless we all start to view our communities holistically, we will continue to put a band-aid on injuries without treating the cause of our ailments. While it is not a single solution, safe and affordable housing in communities that attract and protect families has already shown the positive impacts it can bring to all aspects of the community.

Let’s work toward turning dreams into realities for more families. It may start with a home, but it will provide returns in more ways than simply providing affordable housing. It will enhance and improve our communities for all its residents for years to come.

Bringing Up the Next Generation: Keys to Lifelong Health Lie at Home


Growing up in California, my own early years were not perfect, but by most standards, I had a rather idyllic home life. My parents were loving and devoted to making sure I had what I needed. Our neighborhood was safe, full of families, physically attractive, and provided close by opportunities for safe play, fun outings, and access to good food, good schools, and needed services. And for me, as a child, I felt supported, safe, happy, and free to learn, grow, play, and explore. As a young child even, to me it was a no-brainer: every child should have the same chance to thrive that I did.

And yet, even as a child in elementary school, I was aware that many of my friends didn’t have the same chance at the idyllic childhood home that I held so dear. Some of my friends moved a lot from house to house because their families struggled to afford their homes. Others lived in a house that was full of love and stability but were placed in neighborhoods full of violence, danger, or other uncertainties.  My internal sense of justice, even then, drove me to wonder why such inequities existed?  Why every child growing up in my town didn’t have access to some of the key ingredients that make home all it can be, why instability and poverty and hardship and violence marred their childhoods.

My passion for improving the lives of children and fighting for justice and equity are things I found early in life. And they drove me to pursue a career as a pediatrician and public health researcher. Through my training and research, I now understand the data and research that supports the sense I had as a child that what happens at home has tremendous impacts on how children feel, how healthy they are, and how much they and their families can thrive.

In fact, there is no question that the impact of home goes beyond what happens inside the four walls of the physical space where families live. When I think of home, it is an amalgamation of family, house, neighborhood, and community. It is the place and the people that surround and shape our daily lived experiences. For a small child, this sense of home is almost their whole world.

And research strongly supports the notion that what matters for young children goes far beyond the four walls of their physical home. In my clinical practice, I am constantly reminded that parents care deeply for their children, and despite their limitations, they want their children to thrive. And children are incredibly resilient despite life’s challenges. But there is little question that early adversities shape the health of each generation. And many adversities happen at home.

Inequity in health outcomes are persistent and longstanding. Furthermore, these health outcomes are driven by far more than health care. In fact, access to health care and biology are not the sole determinants of health. Environmental and social factors are critical. The places where children live, learn and play have lifelong health consequences.

We know that, in adulthood, people from certain minority groups and those living in poverty have higher rates of premature death and chronic disease including cancer and cardiovascular disease. But the risk factors that produce these health inequities don’t just arise after a person’s 18th birthday. In fact, the conditions in which children live, learn, play, and grow impact their health for life. And what happens at home matters. Toxins or safety hazards in the houses where children live, concentrated poverty, racism, violence, and lack of access to good schools in the neighborhoods and communities where children are reared all play a role. Inadequate access to safe places to play, good food to eat, and lack of access to good jobs and economic opportunities and social supports and services for parents and caregivers can all have negative impacts on the health of children and contribute to mental and physical health problems in childhood and can set children up for long-term health issues that manifest well after their 18th birthday.

In the U.S., a land of plenty, child poverty is a growing epidemic. Over the last few decades, childhood poverty has risen from 14 percent to 22 percent. One in five children in the United States lives in poverty.  Most of my patients live in Baltimore City, MD, where the picture is even bleaker: one third of children here live in poverty (also, sourced). And poverty doesn’t just affect individuals or families. It affects neighborhoods, communities, and the full totality of a child’s home.

Impoverished families live in impoverished communities which lack the economic resources and access to basic goods and services that support good health. The cumulative effects of poverty, and the chronic stress that goes with it, are highly corrosive. They fuel a child’s risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a range of other mental health problems. Such chronic stress can overwhelm a child’s coping responses. In the short term, it leads to behavioral, mental health, and academic problems. Over the long run, it impairs proper immune function and can precipitate the onset of devastating disorders including mental illness, substance abuse, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

The human price behind these grim statistics is staggering. The research is unequivocal: early-life stressors exact lifelong, insidious damage on health. Children who grow up in poverty face more threats to their life-long health: higher rates of acute and chronic illness, more frequent hospitalizations, worse developmental and academic outcomes, more substance abuse, worse mental health and higher death rates.

Helping families find gainful employment and providing children with a safe living environment, violence-free public space, access to healthy food and good education is our moral imperative. It is also a wise socio-economic strategy, one that will ensure the long-term viability of our city and, indeed, our country.

That journey begins by rebuilding our neighborhoods and by insuring that every child has access to a home that is safe, nurturing, and surrounded by the resources and supports that promote children’s optimal development, support the health and well-being of children and parents, and optimize the landscape of economic opportunity so that parents can realize their deep desires to provide a good life, a safe place, a loving and nurturing home for their children to grow and thrive.  Bottom line: Home Matters.

Open The Door – Real People Will Walk Through


I have now been in the housing and community field for 30 years with the last 23 acting as the President/CEO of Beyond Housing, a community based not for profit in St. Louis.  The one constant that drives me 30 years into this work is that the end result of any success we have is that someone’s life is better due to our efforts.  Today our work is emblematic of the Home Matters movement, in that we understand the critical importance of intentionally integrating our work in the housing field to education, health, jobs and economic development. A real home can only be created when all the components that make up a vibrant and successful community are in place.

While our work and any understanding of home includes buildings both residential and commercial, I believe the physical structures are just the vehicle to serve families.  In the Home Matters Open the Door video, young Samantha anguishes as the door to her stable and happy life closes.  The door closed because she and her family lost the place they called home.  Samantha’s ties to her friends, the library she loved and her community were all taken away.  The building that she called home was important but it was all the things outside her front door that were the drivers for a great deal of her happiness and stability.  It is such a simple and basic premise that I believe each of us understands – where you live matters.  Your home and all that it means, like it did for Samantha, is a large part of your success as an adult today.  This intuitive fact is backed by more research than is imaginable and should be enough to drive public policy and philanthropic dollars to ensure every “Samantha” has the best home and community possible.  Sadly this is not case.  The door has been closed for far too many for far too long.

I want to highlight that behind the data points in all the research about the power of home there are real people, with real names and real lives.  Samantha is fictional in the Home Matters video.  Tanzania is a real person with a real story about the power of home.  I first met Tanzania over 20 years ago when she and her six sisters and their wonderful mother Connie rented a home from Beyond Housing.  Tanzania was in elementary school at the time.  Her mother Connie was a quiet, hard working woman who adored her daughters and pushed them to do well at school.  Their home was in a quiet neighborhood with a big side yard for the girls to play in and plenty of neighbor children.  The girls received back-to-school supplies and gifts during the holiday season from our organization.  Connie participated in our Welfare to Work program and was on her way to great things   Sadly, Connie died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and the girl’s world was shaken dramatically.

Beyond Housing worked with the girl’s father who had only been nominally in their lives.  He moved in the home and we supported him with a variety of services to ensure that stability for the girls continued.  He stayed in the home until all the girls left for college or work.  This would be fine ending, but there is more.  Last year a board member arranged a meeting with a young man who grew up in our community and wanted to give back.  I arranged a meeting with James and he showed up with his wife whose name was Tanzania.  When I shook her hand and said hello (not remembering her) she in turn looked at me in that strange way that I knew she somehow knew me.

We walked to a small conference room and James, an engineer at The Boeing Company, began telling me about his interest in giving back to his community.  After a brief conversation between James and I, Tanzania blurts out “do you know who I am”?  I said no.  She said, “I’m Connie’s daughter.”  My eyes welled up and I stood up walked across the room and we hugged.  Even better, she told me that she and James went through our first-time home buyers program when they recently bought their first home!  Tanzania was finishing her degree in education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was looking forward to helping children.  She told me that the school supplies and holiday gifts were so important to her and her sisters.  It made them feel special.  They loved their big five bedroom home and all that it meant to them.

We were able to open the door for Tanzania and look what it did for her!  She walked through and achieved her part of the American Dream.  Let’s get going.  There are more doors that need to open.

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.

An Investment Worth Making: Financing the New American Dream


In her new book How the Other Half Banks, Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia, tells the true story of three borrowers.

The first, named Tanya, is a single mother of two. She had to take off work to take care of her son after he had emergency surgery. She fell behind on her bills, and she didn’t have anyone to help her. She went to a payday lender and got just enough money to cover the bills. She couldn’t pay it back by the next payday, so she took out another loan. And another and another and another. Until she owed $2,000 in fees and interest. She was earning $11 an hour at her job.

The second borrower is named Thelma. She worked two jobs, lost one, pawned the gifts her grandchildren gave her, and still couldn’t pay her bills. She went to a payday lender and wound up in the same position as Tanya, taking out loan after loan, until she “lost her bank account and ruined her credit.”

The third is a much happier story. This borrower, named Steven, found himself in Tanya and Thelma’s position after the financial crisis. He lost a lot of money in the crash, and he couldn’t pay his bills. So he too went to a lender, but this lender was much more forgiving than Tanya’s or Thelma’s. They gave him low interest rates and lots of time to pay it back. They made sure he didn’t go deeper into debt, and he wound up paying it all back and becoming quite rich and successful in the process.

I like to call this the Parable of Steven, and it raises and important question: How do we turn predatory lending victims like Tanya and Thelma into success stories like Steven?

Well, in crafting an answer, it might help if I told you a bit more about these borrowers. Tanya and Thelma were low-income Americans, as you probably suspected, but Steven…well, his name wasn’t really Steven. And he wasn’t low-income at all. Steven was actually the big banks on Wall Street, and his generous lender was the U.S. government.

In my last post, I talked about the predatory lending schemes that ensnared homeowners during the recent bubble, and I argued that we can prevent another financial disaster by giving borrowers access to affordable credit that won’t bankrupt them in their quest for the American dream. Baradaran’s story shows that it’s possible.

We live in a world where people who need credit the most have the least access to it—a world where “the less money you have, the more you pay to use it,” says Baradaran.

In this world, interest rates vary from 20 percent up to 400 percent. The average borrower renews their payday loans at least ten times, paying the lender for 1999 days. The average title borrower gets a loan backed by their car and then proceeds to renew that loan eight times, “paying $2,142 in interest for $951 in credit.” Nonbank lenders, the kind who made the risky subprime loans that I talked about in my previous post, have taken over 20 percent of the market from the regulated banks since the Great Recession.

The greatest tragedy of all isn’t just the fact that these loans are risky. It’s that, in addition to the damage they do, they make policymakers and voters think that these borrowers can’t be helped. In the wake of the Great Recession, public debate seems to have convinced itself that low-income Americans can get either risky loans or no loans at all.

That leap of logic is both sad and untrue.

When I was at the Federal Reserve, the Congress  assigned us with the task of evaluating lending associated with the Community Reinvestment Act, which was passed in 1977 to encourage banks to lend to low-income communities. Our exploration provided answers that should cause everyone to question this view of low-income Americans where credit is concerned. Congress had passed We found that, after more than twenty years, the CRA was successful at getting banks to give loans to borrowers who had limited options—and the vast majority of those loans were profitable!

Low-income households, it turns out, can access the American dream. But only if they are given an affordable path.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised fifteen years later when my colleagues and I found that homeownership actually increased in the communities with the biggest influx of “nontraditional” mortgages during the housing bubble. Even after the bust, we found a slightly positive effect.

Unfortunately, these success stories have been overshadowed by the many tragic losses that roiled the global economy and devastated millions of homes. My colleagues and I are determined to find ways to foster the former without the latter.

One of my latest efforts, a forthcoming chapter with Anthony W. Orlando that will appear in a book being published by Cambridge University Press, reveals a long history of profitable lending to low- and moderate-income homeowners by American institutions.

We learn from John Creswell, who first had the idea for the U.S. Postal Service to open savings banks for all Americans—a successful 56-year experiment that attracted many millions of dollars in deposits with “virtually no bank withdrawals” from private banks.

We learn from the buildings and loan associations, or “thrifts,” which overcame the risk problem of lending to low-income homeowners by knowing the borrowers personally.

We learn from the South Shore Bank in Chicago, where a few inspiring bankers found that they could profitably invest in community development in low-income areas if they didn’t have shareholders demanding immediate returns.

Significantly, all three institutions either died or saw significant declines. The Postal Service closed its savings banks.  Deregulation drove the thrifts into risky lending that bankrupted most of them. South Shore Bank failed in the Great Recession. But these failures offer an important lesson: Our free market has never offered affordable financial services to all Americans without supportive public policies.

The Parable of Steven shows that even the big banks could not stay afloat without the collective action of the American taxpayer. I do not believe it is too much to ask that the same cooperative spirit be applied to the next generation of homeowners. Indeed, the evidence I’ve seen—and the consequences we have endured from the absence of affordable credit—suggests that it is one of the best investments we can make.


When Bad Loans Happen to Good People: The Horror Story of the “Monster”


While much of my academic career has been spent studying how families get credit to buy homes, the past few years have made me much more aware that simply getting credit isn’t a goal in itself. No, if the credit isn’t sensible and sustainable, the pain can be far worse than any gain that could have resulted.  Consider these stories…

You would have never known, unless you were trained to look for the signs, that Clarence and Wendy Wincentsen were a good mark. They weren’t poor. They weren’t uneducated. They had $300,000 in savings, and they had a perfect credit score. Almost nobody has a perfect score. These were good borrowers. They never should have gotten a bad loan.

But Greg Walling found opportunities where other loan officers might not. He noticed the little things, like how they forgot their reading glasses. That was good because he didn’t want them to read the loan documents.

Plus, he had the Track.

The Track was more than a sales technique. It was psychological manipulation, honed to a precise algorithm. The company called it, innocently enough, “A Loan Officer’s Track to Run On.” The loan officers knew better. They weren’t trying to make loans. They were trying to “find the pain.” They were taught to leave the room and come back and reintroduce themselves twice because customers would subconsciously see them as friends if they’d met them multiple times. Then, they’d leverage this friendship to ask them about their marriage, their bills, their savings, all in the pursuit of finding that pain point where they could be talked into “needing” money. When customers had objections, they’d evade. They’d change the topic. And they’d be so smooth, you wouldn’t even notice they were doing it.

For the Wincentsen’s, it was their car loan. They wanted to pay it off, but they didn’t want to spend so much all at once.

Greg Walling had a solution. He’d refinance their mortgage, and they could take out enough cash to pay off the car loan. In order to make a profit himself, however, he’d have to convince them to pay a higher annual percentage rate (APR) than they were currently paying.

When they got to this point in the Track, the training manager would leave the room. A new guy would come in. One of the company’s top sellers. “Put down your pens and pencils,” he would say. “Cut off your tape recorders.”

Then he would teach them the Monster.

The trouble with APR, from an unscrupulous loan officer’s perspective, is that it includes the entire cost of the loan—not just the interest and principal payments, but the upfront points and fees too. That’s why the government requires them to report it. It tells the borrower the true cost they’ll be paying. It makes it harder for guys like Walling to pad the loan with hidden costs.

The Monster was the loan officer’s way of convincing the customer that APR didn’t matter. He’d show them a hypothetical comparison of two borrowers with the same interest rate and the same fees. One would have a fifteen-year mortgage, and the other would have a thirty-year mortgage. He’d point out that the thirty-year borrower would wind up paying more, even though their APR is the same, because they’re paying the same interest payments for twice as many years. Then he’d get them to admit that short-term loans are better, even if they came with a higher APR, because they’ll save in interest payments in the long run.

When the Wincentsen’s walked out of Greg Walling’s office, they had refinanced their mortgage and cashed out $15,000, and they owed $12,000 in points. The Monster worked.

The Wincentsen’s were one of many caught in this trip.

There was Michael Austin, the 48-year-old machinist who wanted to refinance his mortgage but didn’t want to pay the APR he was being offered. So the loan officer told him it wasn’t binding and convinced him to sign the documents. Austin went home and changed his mind, but the loan officer told him he couldn’t back out now. “You’re going to lose your house,” the officer said to Austin, who was on the verge of tears. “You’re going to ruin your credit forever… C’mon Mike, this is a good deal… This is what you want. This is what you need.” Austin signed the final loan, which wound up costing $20,000 more than he thought it did.

There were the Berringers, who after 56 years of marriage tried to pay off their credit card debt by refinancing their mortgage, only to find that they now owed $18,000 in points and fees that they couldn’t afford. So they took out a reverse mortgage, which allowed them to keep the home but took away all their equity, including their ability to pass their home on to their kids and grandkids.

These stories, and many others like them, come from Michael W. Hudson’s The Monster, one of the great feats of investigative journalism to come out of the recent housing bubble. Hudson’s work makes clear that predatory lending is real, which many people know. What makes the book particularly eye-opening is that each of these borrowers suffered at the hands of one of the largest, most prominent mortgage lenders in the modern era. Predatory lending is real, and it is more pervasive than most Americans realize.

“Every closing that we had really was a bait and switch,” said one loan officer. “’Cause you could never get them to the table if you were honest.”

To be fair, I don’t ascribe to the view that all loan officers behave in this shameful way, and don’t think you should either. There are many upstanding and honest people in the industry. But when I studied the history of mortgage lending, and sadly, I discovered schemes like these were certainly nothing new.

In a new paper with my colleague Anthony W. Orlando, I trace the ebb and flow of these predatory lending schemes over time, each one landing the nation in a financial crisis when the borrowers inevitably default on loans they didn’t understand and couldn’t repay. No amount of innovation in the market has stopped these rip-offs. On the contrary, the more complicated our financial instruments have become, the more education we as consumers need in order to protect ourselves.

Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t getting that education. Over 40 percent of Americans don’t even understand enough of the basics to qualify as “financially literate”.

Fortunately, we did not end the paper there.

We found hope in a number of promising programs that have recently been evaluated by top researchers. One pilot program, tested during the bubble in Chicago, required risky borrowers to meet with a financial counselor before they signed the loan. Another program in Tennessee required homebuyers to attend classes. A similar experiment by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia offered a two-hour counseling session to first-time homebuyers. In all three cases, the result was a significant improvement in borrowing behavior and outcomes.

These programs were temporary and small, and they do not overturn the results of other programs that have not worked as effectively. But they provide a glimmer of possibility from which we should draw strength. The fate of the Wichtensen’s and the Berringer’s and Mrs. Pittman and Mr. Austin need not be the fate of the next generation. Nor should it be.

By the time Greg Walling finally came forward as a whistleblower—“even a thief has morals and ethics,” he said—countless homes had been ruined. In our next post, we will propose ways to prevent this tragedy from recurring—not just by reducing these risky, expensive loans, but by replacing them with affordable options that treat each person and their home with the dignity and respect they deserve.

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.

photo 1

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.

photo 2

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.

photo 3

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.

photo 4

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

photo 5

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.

The LGBT Experience at Home in America


When people talk about home, usually they have in mind the place where they cook their food, store their belongings, relax and recover from the day’s activities, bathe, and lay their heads to sleep. But for many, this isn’t right. For them, home is quite a different thing. It is where they can live without fear and loathing and avoid the hatred of others. It is a place where they can comfortably be who they are.

I was supposed to write a blog post about LGBTQ housing discrimination. That was it. Then Orlando happened and it made me focus directly on the many meanings of home, though I guess I’ve always known it on some level. Reading about Omar Mateen, the man who killed 49 and wounded 53 at a nightclub catering to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community on June 12, these past few days, and how angry and unsettled he was in his acquaintances’ recollections, I keep coming back to an old James Baldwin quote from the Jim Crow 1950s.

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly,” he said, “is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

I see it all around us. I see it in the stories I read about Omar Mateen. I see it in the presidential election, and the calls to discriminate against this or that kind of person. I see it in state laws being passed around the country to allow companies to deny services to LGBT people. They allow employers not to hire them, landlords not to rent to them, and doctors not to treat them.

I do not think, if James Baldwin were here today, he would be surprised to see what is happening. Disappointed, but not surprised. He was a gay black man at a time when it was not safe to be either gay or black. He knew hatred, and he knew pain. He knew them so well that he fled from them, all the way to Paris, where from the age of 24 to the end of his life, he made his home. The last straw, the one that made him leave New York City, was when his best friend killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. If he stayed, Baldwin feared he would follow.

“You say the city beat him to death,” an interviewer once said to him. “You mean that metaphorically.”

“Not so metaphorically,” said Baldwin. “Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

Times have changed, but not enough.

There was a time, say around June 11, when most Americans would have said that it was finally safe to be gay in this country. Now they’re not so sure.

The reason people went to that nightclub—the reason LGBT people go to so many nightclubs—is because they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel, when they walk down the street, that they can be themselves, that they are wanted or even accepted for who they were. They are denied housing. They are denied jobs. They are charged higher rents. They are paid lower wages. Discrimination against LGBT people is real—and studies show that it continues to be real and statistically significant across the country.

The shooting in Orlando brought home to the forefront. And so, I was reminded, as I have been so many times since I started writing for Home Matters, that home is about more than housing. For many of the people in the club that night, Pulse was more of a home than any house they had ever lived in. For many of them, it was there that they truly felt free and equal and safe.  It was Baldwin’s Paris.

They weren’t just attacked in a nightclub. They were attacked in their own home.

Where do they go now? Where do any of us go when we have no place to call home?

In the days after the shooting, stories revealed that some of the people who were killed had not come out to their families. For them, our kind of home was not theirs, and they needed an alternate like Pulse. Tragically, for them, it turned out they weren’t even safe in their alternate home. Others inspired by the horrific event have come out in the days since, an important step in creating home in other places. I hope they are successful.

I think we have to broaden our concept of building a home. The homebuilding we need, more than anything, is not just wood and concrete. It is, first and foremost, freedom from discrimination and freedom from danger.

Then, and only then, with safe spaces and equal rights, can we begin to deal with the pain, and with it, the hatred, until one day, when we may finally live in peace.

The Education Trap: How Our Homes Make or Break Our Children’s Opportunities


It’s hard to write about education knowing I could have been, but wasn’t, denied all the opportunities that have come my way. For all the decisions we have control over in life, where we go to school as children is not one of them. Yet, of course, it’s one of the most important.

Where I went to school, in suburban America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, test scores were among the best in the world, and so were college enrollment rates. My own experience was a testament to both. Had I grown up elsewhere, I doubt I would been so lucky—or done so well in my subsequent career.

In this country more than in most, the quality of education is strongly tied to location. American schools receive the majority of their funding from local, rather than state or federal, taxes. Those who earn more, spend more. As a result, they usually get more in return.

For a long time, economists only had descriptive evidence suggesting that housing values were to blame for this disparity. Then, in 1999, Sandra Black wrote a now-classic paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that confirmed what most of us had suspected all along. Black collected test scores and housing prices for a variety of Boston suburbs, and she separated them by attendance districts. In neighboring districts, she compared households close to the border. On either side of the border, the households lived in the same neighborhood. They had the same demographics. They were, by all relevant metrics, identical. The only difference was the school their kids attended.

Black found that kids living in more expensive houses attended schools with significantly higher test scores. Just to move across the border to a better school—less than one-tenth of a mile in many cases—would cost a family thousands and thousands of dollars. One can only imagine how large the gap is when the good schools are even further away.

This is not a problem that solves itself. On the contrary, it compounds over time. Children in poorer households are precisely the ones who need a better education to navigate our network-oriented employment system and complex financial system if they want any chance at escaping the disadvantage into which they were born. Instead, they wind up in a cycle of lower-end jobs and limited access to credit that leaves them with few choices, with their kids winding up in the same low-quality schools, perpetuating the disadvantage down through the generations.

What a counterproductive irony.

In development economics, there’s a term for this vicious cycle. It’s called a “poverty trap.” Developing nations often face this problem when they can’t afford to invest in the improvements that they need to escape their low standard of living.

But—I can’t stress this enough—we are not a developing nation. We are not lacking resources. We have ample means to invest in homes and neighborhoods where parents can’t afford to provide a quality education for their children.

And, what’s more, we know how to do it.

roland-fryer-jr-big (2)

Every other year, the American Economic Association awards the John Bates Clark Medal to the “best” economist under the age of 40. In some ways, it’s even harder to win than the Nobel Prize. This year, it went to an economist from Harvard named Roland Fryer, who has devoted his young career to finding and understanding successful strategies to boost achievement in disadvantaged students. What Fryer discovered may forever change the way you think about education.

When most people hear the word “education,” they picture a school. That’s why, when politicians talk about improving education, they focus on things like class size, per-pupil spending, and teacher training. Fryer found that none of these things are correlated with better outcomes. In fact, in multiple papers with various co-authors, Fryer has found that sending kids to better schools only reduces the “achievement gap” by a small fraction.

Education, Fryer teaches us, is not just a school. Education is a community. Education is home.

The most effective education, according to Fryer’s research, is a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines high-quality schools with community programs. They prepare the kids before they’re old enough to attend school. They run after-school programs like karate, dance, and tutoring. They counsel the students through the college admissions process. They offer health services and even tax preparation services to the families.

When you really think about it, Fryer’s work isn’t surprising at all. Those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in stable homes and communities know that we were shaped and guided and aided by more than just our classrooms. We had parents and doctors and mentors and coaches who helped us and encouraged us and gave us what we needed to excel in those classrooms.

The only surprising thing is how easily we forget all these diverse factors that make up a child’s education.

Education starts at home, and the influence of that home doesn’t end when children go to school. They carry their home everywhere they go, from the sense of safety they feel in their neighborhood to the resources they can access in their locally-financed classroom.

Some of us grew up in homes that afforded us the educational opportunities we needed to achieve the American dream. Many did not. For them, and for the generations who will come after them, we must break this persistent trap.

These are our children. They didn’t ask to be born into their homes. They didn’t choose to go to their schools. It’s up to us, as guardians of our nation’s future, to open the door for them to access the America we have been so blessed to enjoy.

To Those Who Risk Their Lives for Us, We Owe a Better Welcome Home


They say that twilight is the most dangerous time on the battlefield. Half day, half night, the light plays tricks on your eyes, and the time plays tricks on your body. It is in this moment of transition that you are most vulnerable to an attack.

But this battlefield transition is not the only time of transition that brings danger to our soldiers. The transition from combat to civilian life is a minefield of an entirely different variety. In many ways, this transition will be the hardest one they will ever face. And it is their decision to serve as our protectors that sets the stage for the later hardship our veterans often face.

We often forget, when we talk of their sacrifice, that the rest of us had a head start. They left just when we were going off to college or getting our first job, and by the time they came back, we had already climbed a few rungs on the ladder. They have some catching up to do—and some baggage that’s weighing them down.

How, for example, will they find a place to live?

They typically have limited savings, no job, and virtually no income or wealth. They usually don’t have a college education or a credit history or a social network of friends and coworkers and mentors to guide them. They have spent their adult years defending us. They have had no exposure to —or time forsake.—such things.

What they do have, all too often, are painful memories. They may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. They may have suicidal thoughts. Suicides, after all, claim more military lives than actual combat. They may turn to substance abuse to cope. They likely will pass these problems on to their children, and then their children are likelier to have suicidal thoughts as well. Soldiers never suffer alone. Families suffer with them. Communities suffer with them.

These are some of the reasons why veterans are more likely to be homeless than the rest of the population, why they tend to remain homeless for longer periods of time, and why they have worse health, on average, than the rest of the homeless population. The majority of veterans report that they did not receive assistance in finding a job or getting into college or securing permanent housing when they left the service. It’s a testament to their resilience (and good fortune) that over 80 percent of them didn’t wind up homeless.

But if we focus only on homelessness because it happens to be the most visible symptom, we miss millions of veterans who are just barely clinging to their homes. Here in Los Angeles, one survey found that veterans who had permanent housing “were virtually unanimous in their views that if it were not for family or friends, they would have been homeless.”

That’s why the Department of Veterans Affairs runs a home loan program. It’s why the Department of Housing and Urban Development partners with the VA to give vouchers to homeless vets with a disability. Without these programs, the problem would be much worse. Unfortunately, they’re simply not enough.

Those programs aren’t fully meeting today’s challenges. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have multiplied the number of veterans in need faster than the VA can keep up. This generation of vets is applying for VA home loans at much lower rates than their predecessors. Many of them say they don’t even know the program exists. And the HUD-VA supportive housing vouchers? They only help 50,000 vets a year.

happy young american military family reunion

This is not a lost cause. These brave men and women know how to thrive when they’re given a fair shot. Veterans have a higher homeownership rate than the rest of the population specifically because the last generation put the VA home loans to good use, and the number of homeless veterans has been declining as the HUD-VASH program has been expanding.

But the government shouldn’t be alone in this effort. We all owe our protectors a chance to have the American dream for themselves and their families—and history has shown that they more than pay back our faith and investment in them. When Congress passed the famous GI Bill in 1944, the veterans of World War II used the mortgages and college educations they received to build the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

Here at USC, we have made a similar commitment. Our president Max Nikias recently joined with retired general David Petraeus announce a program that offers full undergraduate tuition to all academically qualified veterans—and they called on other private research universities to do the same.

If we can do it in education, we can do it in housing. This is one reason why Home Matters has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation on the Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge – and getting a veteran into a newly designed, grow-in-place home. We need more housing grant programs like this, which provides money to build and fix up housing for veterans. We need to build as many homes as it takes to end veteran homelessness. We need to reach out to every veteran when it’s their turn to come home and make sure that’s exactly what they get. After all, we wouldn’t have our home if it weren’t for them.

How to Capture on Film All That Home is About…in 60 Seconds or Less


As a student I got to know a man called Frank. He had lost his home, and his neighborhood, and was living on the streets and shelters. He wanted to go back to a world where he had a family, a community. Yet he had no hope. His story of yearning to return home stayed with me for years.

I thought of Frank and his family when collaborating with Home Matters, a coalition that envisions a future where all of us have a home.

It seems simple. Home should be a given. Home is where you grow up. It is the place where you are nurtured, thrive, spend time with your family and community. A home is what you need for health, safety, and success in life.

These days, however, too few of us have a home like that. Some quick facts:

  • More than half a million people are homeless.
  • 55% of all Americans are making big sacrifices just to pay their rent or mortgage.
  • Thousands of communities lack good schools, parks and grocery stores.

These statistics are particularly striking because home is woven into our national mythology: owning a home is part of the American Dream. Of course, economic changes and globalization have made this dream no longer attainable for many.

Home Matters didn’t come to us saying that everyone needs a single-family home with a white picket fence and a four-door Ford out front. Their dream is different. They think no one should have to choose between food and shelter; that no one should have to live in sub-standard housing, attend a school without school supplies or attention, or eat unhealthy food; that no one should have to sacrifice everything just to put a roof over their head.

That dream sparked the idea for a short video series for their new #OpenTheDoor campaign.

Our challenge from Home Matters was to create a spot that would get people to rethink the idea of home—to understand what it really means. Home is more than shelter. Home includes your house or dwelling, your school, and all your local resources. How do you convey all the ways home matters in 60 seconds? In 15 seconds?

We created three short films: “American Dream Dollhouse,” “Foundation,” and “Sacrifice”. In “American Dream Dollhouse” we sought to make clear the stark contrast between what every child dreams of – a safe home in a loving community – and the reality now faced by the majority of Americans. We used stop motion animation to instill a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity in our viewers, and prompt them to keep dreaming.

Home Matters still

Above all, we wanted the pieces to convey our hope that together, we can build a better future. A hope that this New American Dream can still be within reach – that a safe and steady home can be made accessible to all. Because Home Matters too much to settle for anything less.

Urban Design in Our Time of Crisis: A Revolution Waiting to Happen


We may—or may not—be on the brink of a housing revolution. You may not have noticed yet, but this moment is an opportunity. Whether we seize it is entirely up to us.

It reminds me a bit of the wonderful work by the economist Alexander Field. In his book A Great Leap Forward, he makes the provocative argument that the Great Depression was “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.” In the midst of the worst unemployment, poverty, and homelessness anyone can remember, our economy became 40 percent more productive—an almost unthinkably unprecedented accomplishment.

How can that be?

Well, in the 1930s, inventors gave us the first commercial plane, the first television, the first refrigerator, and the first car with V-8 engines, automatic transmissions, power steering, radios, heaters, and hydraulic breaks. Almost all the major technologies of the postwar boom can be traced back to the Great Depression.

One reason, argues Field, is that “adversity summons reservoirs of initiative and creativity that have long-term positive consequences.” For historians, this argument isn’t as controversial as it seems. Titans of industry like John Rockefeller and Jay Gould cemented their strategic advantage—and their fortune—by buying when everyone else was selling. “You want to be greedy when others are fearful,” said Warren Buffett in the depths of the Great Recession. Sure enough, research published in the Harvard Business Review has shown that the most successful firms after recessions aren’t necessarily the ones who were strongest in good times or the ones who cut costs in bad times—they were the ones who explored new markets and invested in research and development when everyone else was running for the exits.

This finding wouldn’t come as a surprise to psychologists either. The latest research, led by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that the most successful people in school, at work, and on the battlefield are not necessarily the smartest or the strongest or the most charming—they’re the ones who have “grit,” the ones who persist against all odds, who dig deep when everyone else is ready to give up.

That’s where real greatness is made.

It turns out that our parents were right. Adversity builds character. Or as Plato famously said, “a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.” Faced with such necessity, the inventors of the 1930s created great affordable, reproducible innovations for the masses.

Now, we find ourselves in a housing affordability crisis.

Since the housing bubble popped, Americans have flooded into rental units in the cities, where construction has been increasingly restricted for several decades. The combination of rising demand and dwindling supply has had the effect that any Econ 101 student would predict: Rents are soaring, and incomes aren’t keeping up.

Just like the Great Depression, this is a tremendous tragedy, and with some foresight could have taken steps to reduce its depth. But the crisis is here. We cannot undo the harm that has befallen our fellow Americans. The only thing we can do—indeed, the thing we must do—is to summon those “reservoirs of initiative and creativity” to build a New American Dream without rent burden.

Already, we are beginning to see the sparks of innovation lighting up the firmament of real estate development and architectural design. In Boston and Seattle, micro-apartment complexes are redefining what it means to be efficient with space, minimizing square footage but preserving high-quality amenities. In Denver and Los Angeles, entrepreneurs are catering to residents who value affordability and community over solitude, sharing common areas with their fellow residents in “co-housing” arrangements.


These solutions are not appropriate for everyone—or every neighborhood. Increasing population density without offering sufficient public services such as public transit, for example, can stress a city’s infrastructure and sap valuable time in commuting costs. But every great innovation, from cars to planes to televisions, was controversial at first. Every advance comes at a cost. In times of crisis, we cannot shy away from trying new ideas, with the understanding that we will all benefit from more productive, less divided urban communities in the long run.

Above all, community stakeholders must have the vision to see that now is the time to invest—and the fortitude not to shy away from innovative new construction when their fellow Americans need them the most.

We can all play a part in this transformation, whether we live in these communities or not. When Field investigated the great inventions of the 1930s, he found that “adversity” wasn’t the only necessary ingredient. Public investment was the other crucial catalyst. The New Deal built the roads and the runways and the transmission lines without which those private inventions would never have been accessible or affordable for the vast majority of Americans. We, as citizens, have an opportunity to replicate this success in the crisis of our own time.

This moment of opportunity is one of the reasons that I have partnered with Home Matters in writing these blog posts. Their Design Challenge from last year is a step toward seizing this opportunity. All across our country, architects and developers and urban planners are poised with the skills and the passion to invent a new urban design that preserves our beautiful housing stock while building a more inclusive community for all who come seeking a home.

When necessity has beckoned, generations past have answered the call. Let us heed their example and design a New American Dream that generations to come will look upon and live in with pride.

Opening Doors: Home Options for Adults with Autism & Other Special Abilities


April is Autism Awareness Month and a time for reflection on progress made since our son Matt’s diagnosis 23 years ago. Thankfully, much has changed since we were told to plan to institutionalize him–and much still needs to change to respond to the housing demand at our doorstep.

Matt represents a generation of more than 500,000 U.S. children with autism entering adulthood this decade. In many ways, I’ve been planning for what happens when the school bus stops coming almost from the first day it arrived. Where will he live? How will he be safe? How can we be sure he’ll be happy, healthy, productive and not sliding backwards?

The reason for my focus? Fear. Yes, this is what I have feared the most for Matt and for so many of our transitioning adolescents and adults. Fear that someone who doesn’t know them will be making decisions about their critical transitions and their futures.  Fear that our options will be limited and not right for our loved ones. Fear that we will not be here to help them transition to homes away from our family homes and to a place where they can build their adult lives, continue to learn, make friends and contribute to the very community that supports them.

Enormous challenges like this one cannot be addressed alone. We must work together to create new and more innovative options bringing together all sectors—public, private and charitable.

Through the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and groundwork by extraordinary leaders from charitable groups, private industry and all levels of government, Greater Phoenix has created a supportive community unlike any other, setting the stage for what comes next: new residential options and safe, nurturing communities to call home.

During the past 16 years, SARRC, Arizona State University, the Urban Land Institute, Arizona Department of Housing and many of the most respected trail blazers in real estate have studied 100 existing residential options across the country, involved more than 100 local family members and individuals with autism in focus groups, co-hosted a national town hall that included 16 cities and evaluated new and creative approaches with leaders from all sectors across the country. Here’s what we’ve learned:

We cannot build homes for 3 or 4 people at a time and accommodate effectively for the 50,000 children with autism entering adulthood annually, in addition to affected adults aging into mid and later life.

We must take full advantage of new and significant advances in technology and design, and a generation of children with autism empowered by early intervention.

We must also separate the supportive services from the real estate ownership to maximize choice for residents, allowing them to select service providers that best meet their needs today and as they change over time.

We cannot rely exclusively on government with its dwindling resources.

We need more choices. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Based on our findings, First Place AZ™ was established in 2012 to develop solutions that disrupt the current housing and services picture. As an independent sister nonprofit to SARRC, First Place is focused on community and property development with the mission of empowering people with autism and other special abilities to thrive, through homes, jobs, friends, lifelong learning and a supportive community.

First Place View_01

Our first model mixed-use residential property, First Place-Phoenix, is set to break ground this year. Sited in the heart of the city, property residents and students will enjoy all the benefits of urban life: public transportation, employment, health care, life long education, recreational opportunities and diversity. Importantly, First Place is not congregate care, assisted living, a licensed facility or a medical home. It’s also ‘disability agnostic.’ It’s about matching the interests and needs of individuals with the right property location, design and amenities. It’s about making for a good place to live – all the things Home Matters speaks to – for every American.

First Place-Phoenix includes the First Place Apartments for residents, a Transition Academy for students, and a National Leadership Institute for the training and education of direct support providers and health care professionals, as well as a home for research, including graduate and doctoral fellows from ASU and Teach For America alumni. All intentionally brought together to foster a sense of community and belonging and a place where adults with autism or other special abilities can thrive.

Residents may lease the 50 studio and one- and two-bedroom First Place Apartments, which are supported by a portfolio of independent living services and property amenities that support greater independence, safety, security, health and wellness, smart home technology, community connections and all the comforts of home. The Transition Academy represents a two-year tuition-based program empowering young adults with independent living, career readiness and interpersonal skills. Residents are not required to participate as students in the Transition Academy; however, students may choose to become Apartment residents following completion of their program.

Together we must advocate for more options that are person-­centered and based on individually defined preferred settings, support needs and meaningful life goals. We need more options so individuals and their families have more choices for what works best for them. We have an enormous opportunity to create more choices through service and program offerings, price points, amenities and opportunities that enable adults with special needs to live with others who share their interests, including those with and without disabilities. It’s time to pioneer approaches focused on market segments and matching of residential offerings and supportive services with demand across North America.

Since Matt’s high school graduation, we’ve worked hard to fill 168 hours weekly. Thanks to SARRC’s Rising Entrepreneurs Program, Matt is the proud lead baker of SMILE Biscotti®, which stands for Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise. In just over two years, Matt has increased his work stamina from 60 minutes to 6 hours, engaged 6 co-workers and sold more than 125,000 biscotti.

Consider the power of hope, of setting our sights on a future we work for, save for and that we don’t fear. Consider what we can do as a good neighbor, in our places of work and worship, and through our civic and nonprofit organizations to help people like Matt and all our kids live, work, play and succeed as valued members of our society.

Substandard Housing: The Choice No American Should Have to Make


I heard a story recently about a man who lived in a crooked apartment. The floor was sloped, so that if you placed a bottle at one end of the room, it would roll downhill until it hit the other wall. The apartment was rent-controlled, and the man who lived in it was terrified that rent control would go away because if it did, he was convinced the landlord would fix the floor so he could raise the rent. The man liked the fact that his apartment was crooked because it was the only reason he could afford to live there.

It’s all about tradeoffs. We can’t all get what we want. So we make sacrifices. For some of us, maybe that means we can’t have the big house with the backyard. For others, it’s a flat floor.

For Lamar, it was clearing maggots out of a kitchen. Lamar and his two sons were looking for an apartment on the North Side of Milwaukee when the sociologist Matthew Desmond caught up with them for his new book Evicted. When Lamar finally found a two-bedroom place he thought he could afford, it had “maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the kitchen.” He took it. “I’m blessed,” he said.

It may surprise you that flat floors and maggots in kitchens are tradeoffs facing Americans seeking affordable housing today. Aren’t there building codes, you ask? The answer is yes. A few generations ago, we decided to draw the line at certain basic requirements every home should have. But a complete answer goes beyond that and gets a bit complicated.


The first building codes date back to ancient times, when a contractor could be put to death for building a house that collapsed on its owner. More recent regulations evolved out of citywide disasters like the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. These precautions protected residents from dangers they had little expertise to prevent on their own.

The regulations that are supposed to protect people like Lamar, however, weren’t adopted until the mid-twentieth century when Congress made it a national priority to eliminate substandard housing in the major cities. And in the years following this focus, the extent of substandard housing decreased dramatically. The number of homes lacking heat and indoor plumbing has fallen sharply. The incidence of lead in the home has similarly declined in significant ways.  So we have seen progress, especially in rural areas.

But here is where we come back to tradeoffs, because there were costs.  Many of the so-called “urban renewal” efforts that drove a part of the change involved slum clearance and neighborhood “reclamation” efforts that resulted in widespread displacement of poor families from their homes by force. Within these communities, urban renewal came to be known as “Negro removal.” For many residents, the experience was so traumatic that their resentment continues to this day.

Further, in spite of the progress we have seen, the past is not entirely past. Just ask Arleen and her sons Jori and Jafaris. When they first entered Desmond’s story, they were living in a homeless shelter. Then they found a house. The original coat of paint had almost completely disappeared from the exterior, and a new coat covered less than half the house before the painter, apparently, gave up.

“There was often no water in the house,” Desmond writes, “and Jori had to bucket out what was in the toilet. But Arleen loved that it was spacious and set apart from other houses. ‘It was quiet,’ she remembered. ‘And five-twenty-five for a whole house, two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. It was my favorite place.’”

The usual response to substandard housing is to get the people out of the poor living conditions. Nobody should be living in a place with maggots or toilets that don’t work.  Indeed, this is what happened to Arleen after only a few weeks of living in her “favorite place.” The city designated her house “unfit for human habitation” and made her vacate it.

The problem is that eviction works in this case only if there is another unit above the minimum standard that is affordable to the family forced to move. And the narrative from Evicted shows that there often isn’t one.  In these cases, all eviction does is move a low-income family from one substandard home to another.

Sadly, I fear this problem is only going to get worse.  The housing stock is aging. In most large cities, rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Many cities are restricting construction of housing that could meet the needs of a growing population. As demand outstrips supply, it’s inevitable that more and more families will fall into this vicious cycle, unable to afford anything other than substandard housing.

If we accept this premise, we are left in a tough predicament. Because enforcing building codes improves the quality of rental housing, it will have a negative implication for affordability.  Every homebuyer knows that quality and price are inextricably linked, and this is true in the rental market as well.

The implication is that we can’t think about building code enforcement without also thinking about and addressing affordability.  For too long, public policy has treated them as separate problems. And it has left people like Lamar and Arleen to fend for themselves and select from the worst that our housing has to offer.

Housing policy must embrace this mandate—to banish substandard housing without banishing the long-suffering residents trapped in its sinking clutches.  Because there are certain tradeoffs no one should have to make. It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that everyone deserves a home with running water, no maggots, and a flat floor. A quality home should not be out of anyone’s price range.

When Your House Is Not a Home: The Tragedy of Concentrated Poverty


On the afternoon of August 15, 2015, Jamyla Bolden came home from Koch Elementary School in eastern Missouri to play with her friend Akeelah on Ellison Drive, where the Bolden family lived. They probably danced until the sun set. (Jamyla was known for making up new dance routines.) Then, Jamyla came inside and sat on her mother’s bed to do her homework, where she was still sitting when bullets shot through the window and tore into her body.

When the police arrived, she bled to death in their arms. She was nine years old.

This is the curse of concentrated poverty. No child deserves this kind of home.

When we talk about child development, we usually focus on parenting and school programs. Studies have found, for example, that poor parents read less to their children than their more affluent counterparts, with the result being that poorer children have less developed vocabularies and cognitive skills upon entry into grade school.

This study, and others like it, are examining direct factors. The parents read directly to their children. Head Start directly exposes children to educational environments earlier. The Common Core directly teaches children using a specialized curriculum. In each case, energy is purposefully directed to students with the goal of improving their development.

Recently, though, researchers have been looking at how indirect factors affect a child’s development.  A few miles down the road from Koch Elementary School is Washington University in St. Louis, where a team of researchers are studying the effect of poverty on children’s brains. They look at two regions in particular: the “hippocampus,” which deals with memory and learning, and the “amygdala,” where we process stress and emotion. A few months after Jamyla Bolden’s tragic death, the researchers published MRI scans that showed these regions were significantly smaller and less connected to the rest of the brain when the kids were raised in poverty.

The Washington University findings are part of a growing body of evidence showing the cognitive damage that poverty wreaks on people. It stresses their immune system and saps their mental capacity. It makes it harder to concentrate and easier to fall into depression. Adults make poorer investment decisions, and children perform worse at school. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially declared poverty to be “unacceptable and detrimental to the health and well-being of children,” calling for a significant increase in aid and investment to eradicate it.

Housing researchers have confirmed these conclusions across the board. Children’s cognitive achievement falls when their family spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Sustainable, affordable housing is linked to better physical and mental health and better educational outcomes. Children behave better and develop healthier in higher quality housing.

Critically, these effects spill over across the neighborhood. Kids do better in school when their neighbors do better. When their neighborhoods are safer and less stressful, they’re less likely to drop out and more likely to work out. One recent study found that standardized test scores go down when kids live on a block that experienced violent crime in the preceding week. The built environment shapes our lives in so many ways, it is impossible to deny that our ability to grow and succeed in life is deeply grounded at home.

Some of our leaders want to invest less in these poor neighborhoods. They want to cut aid to poor families and block construction of affordable housing. They want to give up on public schools and give in to harsher policing. This is wrongheaded and counterproductive.

Whenever I hear these excuses, I think of children like Jamyla Bolden. These are our babies. They are innocent, and they are dying. We, as their collective guardians, have failed them.

Akeelah can’t even walk down Ellison Drive anymore. The first time the school bus passed Jamyla’s house after the shooting, Akeelah had a panic attack. No home should make a child feel that way.

I keep coming back to the following question: Imagine, for just a moment, that you live on Ellison Drive. Where do you go in your house when you hear gunshots outside?

One elementary school principal was asked this question in Los Angeles a few years back, and his students were shocked when he replied, “I’ve never heard gunshots in my neighborhood.” They could not conceive of such a place.

If you, like the principal, don’t immediately know the answer, it’s a question that should haunt you. For it shows just how fortunate you are that you never have to think about it.

If, on the other hand, your life depends on the answer, you are not fortunate at all. Your house is not a home. It’s a bunker in a war you didn’t sign up for.

This should not stand. Let’s work together so that we all may find peace—and not poverty—in a place we can truly call home.

Home + Safety: A Police Chief’s Perspective


Working in the public safety field for close to thirty years, I have come to realize through all my experiences that a home is more than a place where a person lives.  In St. Louis, I have seen the impact of often well-intentioned developers, city planners, and local leaders who have failed to appreciate that a home exists within a wider community context.  To have a home, an apartment, or some form of shelter is basic human necessity but a home is more than just shelter.  Depending on the environment around the home, shelter alone does not produce the full benefits of the home as an expression of the American Dream without attention to the quality and safety of the community. 

Within this context, a home is also about the collective connection and health of the community.  It’s about building wealth within families and moving up the social and economic ladder.  The most successful development projects in urban areas have engaged the community in the planning and design process.  These grass roots efforts provide insight, ownership, and diversity of thought that address the needs and vision of community.

Law enforcement is a part of this community as well.  Safety is critical to the home experience.  Home is the one place where we all should feel most safe.  I remember as a child my home being burglarized and never feeling as comfortable at home after that experience.  It’s logical today with technology that security features are a part of any home but a home is also about the safety of the neighborhood.  Having a home locked behind bars, security cameras, and alarms is not a true home.  To feel at home, you must feel  safe in the community where your home resides.   

Attention to crime prevention through environmental design makes a neighborhood a home through adequate street lighting, well maintained landscaping and roads, and having sufficient number of receptacles available for trash disposal.  These are all quality of life issues that produce conditions that prevent crime and add to a feeling of safety in one’s home. 

A home is also about neighborhood-based schools, churches, medical facilities and grocery stores – institutions and resources that are the foundation of a home and community.  And of course, an engaged police department and city government working under a community partnership model concerned and responsive to problems that inevitably arise in any community.

Everyone should have the chance to participate in the American Dream of a safe and healthy home along with a safe and healthy neighborhood that gives citizens the opportunity to thrive in their homes.

The Black History of Housing in America: How the Dream Was Deferred


If you want to understand the black-white wealth gap, it helps to know the story of William J. Levitt. The son of a real estate attorney, Levitt grew up in Brooklyn and went to New York University. In the first year of the Great Depression, his father started a real-estate development company and put William in charge. This inheritance would be providential.

When the United States entered World War II, William Levitt joined the Navy. He served honorably and came home to the family business. There had never been a better time to build middle-class houses. Young veterans flooded into the market, ready to start their own families, and the government supported them with home loans guaranteed by the G.I. Bill, the FHA, Fannie Mae, and other programs created by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The Baby Boom created a demand for bigger homes, and postwar prosperity made it possible for millions of Americans to afford them. Levitt seized the opportunity.


The first “Levittown” appeared in 1947 on Long Island. It featured nearly identical houses built in assembly-line fashion. It was efficient and affordable, and it worked. Thousands of Americans bought up Levitt homes from New York down through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Years later, Levitt would be called “the father of modern suburbia.”

William Levitt took over sole control of Levitt & Sons in 1954, and until that point, it didn’t seem to be a problem that he refused to sell a single house to a black family.

At this point, it’s useful to tell you what happens in a Polya urn experiment. You take an urn and fill it with balls. Half white, half black. You pick them out, one by one, without looking. It’s random. If you pick a black ball, you put it back with another black ball. If you pick a white, you put in two whites. At first, the mix doesn’t change much. It fluctuates back-and-forth, tilting a little to one and then to the other, until suddenly it starts favoring one side more. It’s luck of the draw. Whatever color gets picked more in the early draws, it becomes the dominant color in later draws. And from that point on, you can never get it back to equality. That color always dominates. It’s a statistical certainty.

Levittown gave white families all the early draws, but so did most communities. All across America, exclusionary zoning kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and where it didn’t, the white neighborhoods put restrictive covenants in the deeds to the same effect. Even in the absence of legal constraints, real estate brokers steered blacks into poorer neighborhoods. The National Association of Real Estate Boards explicitly instructed their members to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

And if they overcame all those obstacles and found a house they could actually buy, blacks found it nearly impossible to get the mortgage they needed to afford it. The FHA drew a red line around black neighborhoods to warn banks not to lend there. Their appraisal manuals told them to stay away from “inharmonious racial groups.” Out of 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. bill, less than 100 went to blacks.

That’s a pretty lopsided urn.

Now the thing you have to understand—the absolutely crucial part of the story that seems to be lost on half the nation—is that this is not ancient history. Racial steering still happens today. According to one study, it happens in the majority of cases. The FHA may have gotten rid of redlining after the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but Bill Dedman won a Pulitzer Prize over two decades later in 1989 for uncovering how prevalent it still was at private banks. Even more recently, during the early 2000s, it was those same neighborhoods, the ones that couldn’t get mortgages for so long, that subprime lenders preyed upon with loans they knew the borrowers didn’t understand and that many of those borrowers wouldn’t repay.

They called it “reverse redlining“. Investigative reporter Michael W. Hudson interviewed salesmen at the biggest lenders who said that they targeted elderly black widows who were “very trusting” and easy to dupe. Angelo Mozilo, chief executive of the behemoth Countrywide Financial, admitted behind closed doors that he was trying to close the minority lending gap with “the most dangerous product in existence.” He even predicted that his customers “are going to experience a payment shock which is going to be difficult if not impossible for them to manage.”  Insider accounts have revealed similar stories throughout the industry.

The result was a complete obliteration of the gains that black households had made in closing the wealth gap over the last three decades.

But even if none of that were true—even if landlords didn’t discriminate against black-sounding names (which they do) and even if banks didn’t start redlining again after the Great Recession (which they did)—even if all bias were suddenly erased from the system, deep racial inequality would not go away because wealth, like the mix of balls in the Polya urn, is sticky and self-reinforcing. It doesn’t just get passed from generation to generation. It accumulates—as it did for William J. Levitt, who built a $100 million fortune through his family business. Economists have found that intergenerational transfers—both during the parents’ lifetime and after their death—account for at least half of the average American family’s wealth.

By excluding blacks from Levittown, white households weren’t just denying them a house. They were denying access to the most effective source of wealth generation in the modern world. Homeownership accrues wealth faster than most retirement accounts, and with a fixed-rate mortgage, it’s less volatile and easier to access than the stock market. It has literally built the American middle class.

Langston Hughes famously asked of the black experience in America, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Lorraine Hansberry interpreted the question as referring to restrictive covenants, and her answer, in the form of the play A Raisin in the Sun, became an instant classic. It resonated with us because we know, deep down in our American bones, that home matters. We know that home is wealth. That home is family. That home is freedom.

But I wonder, 65 years after Hughes published that poem, whether we can fairly say that the dream was deferred. Because calling it deferred means the dream will be realized in the future. Will we ever finally all share in the dream?

During this Black History Month, and for many to come, we must never forget the dream—and fight for a new inheritance, one woven not of exclusion but instead of that universal human spirit that calls us each home.

The Flint Lead Poisoning Disaster: Why We Must Invest in Healthy Homes


About 150 years ago, people figured out that lead pipes could kill them. In 1861, fifty prisoners in King County Jail in Brooklyn started vomiting uncontrollably, until a doctor realized that the water supply was contaminated with lead. Seven years later, a New York City woman named Elizabeth Galler was accused of poisoning her husband to death, until the coroner concluded that the lead in his body came not from one big dose, but rather from many small doses over a long time. The New York Herald ran an editorial demanding an investigation into the city’s lead pipes. We now know that the lead level in New York tap water back then was over 100 times more toxic than the EPA’s current standard.

The economic historian Werner Troesken tells these stories in his 2006 book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster to make a point: This is an old problem. But sadly it is not one that has gone away. This is one lesson to take from the events unfolding in Flint, Michigan, where an entire town has been drinking contaminated water since March 2014. The stories of nauseating brown water and blasé state officials paint a shockingly distressing picture of mismanagement and neglect. 

Unfortunately, in America, the lead problem is not limited to Michigan. Instead, it extends far beyond Michigan. If 4 percent is too many kids to have high lead concentrations in Flint—and it undoubtedly is—then what does it say that it’s 12.9 percent in Milwaukee and 17.6 percent Cleveland? Or, can you believe it, 40 percent in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, and 58.3 percent in Houston County, Alabama?

To be fair, tremendous progress has been made on the public health front, and much of this progress has been in the area of healthy homes.  For example, the number of people living in substandard housing has fallen by almost half since 1978, and we now have less than 1 million units in this condition, with many of these units in rural areas.

We have even made considerable progress where lead exposure is concerned.  Between 1976 and 2006, the incidence of lead in blood among children under 5 fell dramatically, from 13.5 million to 174,000. So we are a long way from the days when 85 percent of big cities used lead pipes and 10 percent of Massachusetts residents suffered from lead poisoning.

But 174,000 kids exposed to lead is still far too many, so our work continues in programs across the country actively working to minimize lead exposure. In Milwaukee, researchers have been tracking children’s blood lead levels and found them improving from the city’s lead hazard control program. In Rochester, the city’s housing inspection law has made thousands of homes safer from lead paint. In Boston, the National Center for Healthy Housing has reduced outdoor lead contamination with low-cost soil interventions. Throughout the nation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued grants that reduced lead contamination in homes and improved children’s health.

This is all good news.

But a second lesson I am reminded of from the Flint case is that poor people often bear the burdens of environmental degradation.  Companies have a long history of locating their most pollution-intensive plants closest to the poorest neighborhoods, making life harder for the Americans for which it is already the hardest.  Experience shows that maintaining reduced lead exposure in such at-risk communities is especially hard. The HUD intervention, for example, cleaned out the lead dust in the short run, but a year later, it piled up again. Home maintenance requires constant vigilance.


One look at Flint is all it takes to see how communities deteriorate without sustained investment. Cost-cutting becomes a dangerous temptation. In Flint’s case, they had to cede power to a state-appointed “emergency manager” who made the ill-fated switch to a cheaper water system. As one Flint resident pointed out, there’s no mystery why they got stuck with this penny-pinching czar: “Almost every city that got one was a poor, African-American-majority city devastated by a shrinking industrial sector: Flint, Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, and so on.”

What does all of this say? It says that healthy housing matters. It says that healthy neighborhoods matter. And it says that for all our progress—let’s not forget that those percentages have fallen significantly in recent decades—we are still allowing too many American kids to be poisoned. Usually, of course, it’s the kids who are already starting at a disadvantage, coming from poor homes and segregated neighborhoods.

It’s definitely progress that Flint shocks us. In Elizabeth Galler’s day, there was no outrage over the lead pipes that killed her husband. We have come to expect more from our cities because our cities have shown that they can overcome these threats to our health.

Our homes, above all else, should not be threats. They should be the one place where we—and our children—can feel safe. But safety does not come free. It requires a commitment by all of us to invest in the programs and policies that can condemn known, predictable threats like lead exposure permanently to the past where they belong.


What If Your Home Today Can Be Your Home Tomorrow? Forever.


Starting a family or preparing for retirement are large life transformations – ones that often involve the turmoil of changing homes, neighborhoods, and communities. But what if that wasn’t the case, and you could stay in your home and community, no matter what changes life throws your way?

That’s the ultimate goal of The AARP, AARP Foundation, Home Matters and Wells Fargo Re-defining Home: Home Today, Home Tomorrow design competition – we’re challenging architects, designers, and allied professionals to come together as interdisciplinary design teams to create new standards for housing in America that enable people to stay in their home as they travel through life’s various stages.

By leveraging universal design solutions to remodel an existing home located in Memphis, Tennessee, participating design teams will demonstrate attractive, adaptable, affordable, and replicable design elements that address and showcase livability by promoting aesthetic and functional designs for better living.


Coined by architect Ronald L. Mace, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, universal design embodies designing a built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

While the phrase “universal design” may conjure images of barrier-free design staples (like ramps and grab bars), that is not the goal of this design competition. The guiding principles of universal design go far beyond accessibility issues. Remaining essentially invisible in order to assist in a seamless transition between life stages, including entering the workforce, building a family, coping with an empty nest, and discovering new passions after retirement, universal design principles take into consideration the needs of its homeowner at every stage.

Jar Opener

When envisioning universal design, think OXO kitchen products versus grab-bars. OXO is a well-designed, well-known product line specifically founded on the philosophy of universal design, designing products for young and old, male and female, left- and right-handed, as well as those with special needs. With its debut of 15 kitchen tools in 1990, OXO set a new standard by creating effective, attractive tools that people of all ages and abilities were proud and eager to use. Now, that’s what we’re trying to achieve with the Re-defining Home: Home Today, Home Tomorrow design competition.

Are you ready to make the change in your own home? Easy-to-use, accessible, affordable products and services improve the quality of life of all citizens. But given a multitude of options, materials, evolving technologies and trends, how do you know what is right for your home and your family?

Involving an architect or designer at the earliest stage in project planning can allow for a better opportunity to analyze your needs, develop effective solutions, and propose ways to keep costs down. With a broad understanding of design and construction, an architect or designer can help guide you through the entire home renovation or building process, offer new ideas, and help you create your very own forever-home in the most efficient and effective manner.

This invaluable expertise and perspective that an architect or a designer contributes to the design and building process enriches how we experience the built environment and its connection to our everyday surroundings.

AIA San Francisco and its members are proud to partner on this important challenge. Our members from around the Bay Area are at the forefront of design and develop housing for all types of individuals and families. We’re looking forward to see what the architect and design community, and members of our 30+ partner organizations, develops for the competition. We know that the submissions will inform and improve our work here in San Francisco, and across the country, so that a home today can be a home tomorrow.

Good Home + Exercise = Good Health


As a middle-age woman, I decided to go back to school and become a nurse because I wanted to help improve the health of those around me. While attending college, the responsibilities of work and school greatly increased. I found myself with less free time to cook healthy, homemade meals and less time to do physical activities with my children. After graduation, I found that my family and I were heavier and our overall health had declined. I was not only concerned, but I also felt embarrassed that I had not done anything to prevent it. As a nurse and a mother, I feel obligated to teach about the prevention of diabetes and search for resources in my community to help not only my family, but also others in my community, live healthier, more active lives.

One in ten adults has diabetes type 2. In the United States, the number of cases of diabetes has increased significantly in the last few years, especially in children. Through my research and experience as a nurse, I have realized that specific ethnic groups and families with lower incomes are affected the most. Lack of exercise is one of the main reasons for the increase in the number of cases of diabetes. These low income-communities do not have the resources necessary to keep families active and to prevent diseases.

Diabetes is the root of many chronic diseases: renal, hepatic, cardiac, and gastro-intestinal diseases, as well as amputations and other metabolic complications. Many of these medical conditions could be prevented by providing resources in the community, teaching children about healthy foods choices, and promoting the physical activity.

I volunteer for the local fire department and I have learned that members of low-income communities lack access to proper preventive health care. These deprived populations are bombarded with cheap junk foods that are sold in restaurants, food stores, convenience stores, and even in auto-parts stores. These communities do not have access to grocery stores that many of us take for granted, offering healthier meal options that include grains, lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Another factor affecting these communities is the lack of affordable child care programs. Most of the parents work long hours and children are left home alone. Kids spend long hours watching television, playing video games or using the computer, and eating only accessible junk food without the option of eating healthy, homemade meals. These home situations are not only unsafe, but also increase their risk for diabetes and obesity.

Communities like these need safe environments, parks, and recreational facilities for children to play. They also need school programs that offer exercise and opportunities for social interaction. It has been proven that an increase in healthy food environments and opportunities for physical activities are associated with a lower number of cases of obesity and diabetes. Scientists from Harvard University have discovered that when a person exercises, our muscles release natural substances that help relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol (LDL), lower glucose levels in the blood, lower insulin levels, and reduce inflammation. All of these functions protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even some types of cancer.

in uniform

To promote healthier lifestyles, more awareness is needed, as well as educational interventions with community-based approaches.  I feel fortunate to have received my education and live modestly. I would like for other families to be able to do the same – to go to college or afford to send their kids to college, to own their homes, and live in a supportive community, which provides resources to advance economically, academically, and where their children can grow safe and healthy. There is so much that could be done, but for now I will begin by preparing healthy meals for my loved ones, by teaching family and friends about diabetes prevention, and by spending more time playing and exercising with my children. I have realized that I enjoy walking with my daughter. We like to go shopping together and we talk about healthy options. We also do games at home to see if she can combine different ingredients to create a well-balanced meal and proper size portions. All of these are factors have helped me help my family prevent obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

There are several  good resources for exercise from the American Diabetes Association about local events in the community and across the country. The name of one of the programs is “Step Out. Walk to Stop Diabetes,” a great way to learn more and stay healthy. 

Hospitals also provide several resources and opportunities for healthy lifestyles. For example, in my community, Banner Health Hospital provides resources for families to stay active through their program “Go Kids!”.


And nationally, first lady, Michelle Obama created the “Let’s Move Program,” which provides information and resources to help lower or prevent obesity by teaching individuals and families to make healthier eating choices and staying physically active. I seriously believe that if communities do not provide resources for their families, activities for children, and safe living environments, these communities will never improve.

I will not give up on my children, on my family, on my community, nor on my own health. Together we can all make the difference.

What’s a Community? Safe At Home.


“What’s a community?” As someone whose day-to-day work is about making neighborhoods safe, great places to live, I was thrilled to hear this question from my young son over dinner a while back. And I was ready to talk with him about our neighbors, his school, the local park where we so often run into friends, and so many other places and connections that enrich our lives. But his little sister piped up first. “A community is the reason we pick up trash,” she said definitively.

She had a point there. When we’re deciding whether to step up to fix a neighborhood problem, it matters whether we care about the people who are affected. On the other hand, how much we connect with the people around us has a lot to do with how places look and feel. Do I stop and chat with my neighbors, or is my block so littered and dark that I hurry home with my head down?

Nowhere is the interconnected nature of social cohesion and the physical landscape more important than in neighborhoods struggling with persistently high crime. While overall crime rates have been on the decline nationwide for years, some communities haven’t improved, or have seen troubling increases in violence. Many of these communities are the same places where untended, overgrown lots and vacant properties are lingering reminders, block after block, of the foreclosure crisis or earlier disinvestment. This kind of blight fuels crime, as vacant homes become drug houses and patches of weeds become stash points for shared guns.

When those conditions are part of your daily reality, fear is real and justified. Hope may also be in short supply, especially when prior efforts to address problems have failed. All of this adds up to a lot of disincentive to engage in civic life – to play outside, to get to know neighbors, and yes, to pick up trash.

Experience has shown us that piecemeal responses to these complex conditions are likely to have limited effect. In particular, there is now widespread recognition that we can’t arrest our way out of crime problems linked to such a mix of environmental, economic and social issues, a point highlighted in the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year.

We need more comprehensive solutions that bring people and institutions together to tackle blight and other physical and economic problems of communities, and build social bonds in the process. In high crime neighborhoods, such efforts are more effective if they are integrated with community policing and strategic law enforcement.

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This has been the basis for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s investment in partnerships between community groups, housing developers and local law enforcement for more than 20 years. It is also at the center of work underway around the country through programs like Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI), a comprehensive crime reduction initiative of the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance that is active in 60 sites nationwide.

Through BCJI and similar programs, residents of high crime neighborhoods are weighing in about what’s happening at persistent “hot spots” in their neighborhoods. They are at the table with police officers, city leaders and researchers, figuring out how their knowledge and the input of their neighbors matches up against data points about crime incidents, reentry, housing vacancy and blight. That process helps everyone identify which actions are most likely to disrupt entrenched patterns of crime. It also builds relationships between neighbors and professionals looking for more effective solutions, and maybe a chance to be part of something transformational.

In San Antonio, a team of residents and public agency leaders is now implementing a plan they developed together to address crime and blight in the Eastside. In July, 400 people turned out for a block party that kicked off a project to close alleys, clean up vacant lots and beautify a troubled area using the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Violence plummeted with zero incidents since the project’s launch. As it wraps up, neighbors can now see the results of collective action and a process that honored their voices alongside those of local officials.

Also this past summer, young people in Kansas City, Missouri helped to reduce blight along the Prospect Corridor in an effort that complemented the work of the No Violence Alliance, a multi-agency effort to reduce violence in the urban core. Drawing on their own experiences and neighborhood history, local youth worked with adult mentors and artists to create plywood murals that are being used to board up vacant houses. The project layered crime abatement efforts with positive social and artistic expression, changing the narrative in a neighborhood on the move.

It is efforts like these that can serve as a model as we seek to improve safety in troubled places and build “community” at the same time. Just as the roots of the problems are intertwined, so must be the solutions.

A Home for Everyone: The Unfulfilled Promise of Thanksgiving


On Thursday morning, when I fly from Los Angeles to Utah for Thanksgiving with my family, there will come a moment when I’m reminded just how fortunate I am that I have a home to go to. So, I’m guessing, do you. Thanksgiving is practically synonymous with home. It’s part of what makes this holiday so meaningful. It’s what we picture when we think of the day, everyone seated around a table, at home.

But on the road to the airport that morning, I will see something that is all too common in this country: people who don’t have a home to go to. And as I go to celebrate the holiday with my family, a sad reality will set in: they likely don’t have anyone to celebrate with. They’re homeless, and they’re more numerous here in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country other than New York City.

But then as the plane lands, something strange will happen. Homelessness, which had been so ubiquitous on the streets of my hometown, will practically disappear from sight. Utah, you see, has almost eliminated chronic homelessness.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of differences between Utah and Southern California. The price of housing, to name the most obvious, is a lot lower in Utah. But every state has thousands of homeless residents, and Utah was no exception until recently.

What changed in Utah was a program called Housing First. Starting in 2005, the state went to the chronically homeless and offered them a deal: For $50 a month or 30 percent of their income, whichever was more, the state would give them an apartment to live in.

Ninety percent took them up on it.

Utah doesn’t count chronically homeless residents in the thousands anymore. There are so few left that the statewide director of the program says he knows them by name. And because it costs more for the police and hospitals to deal with them on the street, giving them apartments has actually saved the state money.

It’s tempting to conclude from this story that the problem is easy to solve. It isn’t.


Despite its success in reducing chronic homelessness, Housing First has barely made a dent in the rest of the homeless population; the “other” homeless group that often drifts between temporary homes and outnumbers the chronically homeless by more than ten-to-one. A key problem is money. Even though it saves money in the long run, reducing homelessness requires more money upfront, and the National Housing Trust Fund that President George W. Bush established to address the problem has been raided by Congress to pay for other programs. Further, unless it comes with “wraparound” services like substance-abuse treatment and job training and placement, providing housing is unlikely to generate the self-sufficiency needed for formerly homeless people to stay in their new homes. And of course it does nothing to prevent Americans from becoming homeless in the first place.

The sad reality is that the pathways to homelessness are many and complex, ranging from substance abuse to domestic violence to mental illness. Children are particularly vulnerable. If they don’t have a support system at home, they may look for it in “street families” and gangs. Robin Petering, a PhD candidate at the USC School of Social Work, has interviewed the homeless youth of Los Angeles and found that over half of them have been closely affiliated with gangs. Most of them are no longer gang members, yet they’re treated as criminals, unable to transition into productive society.

Clearly, housing cannot solve these problems alone, and that is because home is more than housing. Home is safety. Home is health. Home is self-sufficiency.

Perhaps most evident on Thanksgiving, home is family.

And that is why it was so moving to see HUD Secretary Julián Castro post the following to Twitter earlier this week: “Up to 40 % of homeless youth are LBGT. LGBT persons are often rejected from their homes because of who they are.”

Rejected from their homes. Of all the tragedies in the human experience, can any be more antithetical to what we celebrate on Thanksgiving, this anniversary of many of our ancestors finding a home in a new land? They too were rejected, and the native peoples of this great continent stood ready to welcome them.

Cherish the home you find yourself in this Thanksgiving. I will cherish mine. Then, when the celebration is over, I will fly back to Los Angeles, and I will get back to working with you to fulfill the promise this nation once represented to a brave band of homeless pioneers who came to these shores in search of a home for all who would one day call themselves Americans.

A Matter of Life or Death: How Better Homes Make Us a Healthier Nation


Middle-aged white Americans have been dying at an accelerating rate for the last fifteen years. This is surprising to, well, pretty much everyone. Perhaps you heard it on the news. Almost immediately after winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, Angus Deaton and Anne Case dropped this bombshell finding in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the nation, appropriately, was alarmed.

Now, the first thing I should say is that I’m not an expert on death. I’m not a clinician or even a health policy expert. But from my career in housing research, I can tell you something about death that hasn’t often been reported in the news: Where you live has a significant effect on how long you live.

Clarity on this issue came for me during my time serving at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, I spent many hours with Ron Sims, who was Deputy Secretary at the time.  Sims had worked with local leaders in King County to show that you could predict health outcomes by the ZIP code someone lived in.. He brought this notion to HUD and, under his leadership and that of the then-Secretary Shaun Donovan, the phrase “the best predictor of a person’s life outcomes shouldn’t be the ZIP code one lives in” became a departmental mantra. Sadly, today it often is. Obesity, illness, morbidity – they all vary significantly with where you live.

There were signs of trouble before the news of Case and Deaton’s research broke.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Small Towns Face Rising Suicide Rates.” The victims and their communities had a lot in common. The article quoted one psychologist who pointed out that rural areas tend to have “lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems.” In fact, if you located those counties on a map published by the Times a few days earlier, you would find most of them in areas where an unusually high percentage of the population still don’t have health insurance. If you dug a little deeper, you would also find, as the Times did, “that 55 percent of counties in the United States—all of them rural—do not have a single psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker.”


A couple days later, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a map of their own, showing the average life expectancy in each county. Aside from the choice of colors, it was nearly identical to the health insurance map. If you lived in the healthier counties, you could expect to live a full decade longer than you’d live in others.

I’ll say it again: Where you live has a significant effect on how long you live.

Housing researchers have known this fact for some time. A large body of evidence shows all the ways that your home, your neighborhood, and your environment affect your health. In the last year alone, studies have found that higher rent costs lead to worse health; more violent neighborhoods lead to higher rates of depression; moving to a better neighborhood tends to reduce obesity; more environmentally friendly neighborhoods lead to better health for the sickest residents; and crucially in light of Angus Deaton’s latest findings, we have known for over a decade that families who move to low-poverty neighborhoods experience better mental health.

Some of these objectives are economically and politically difficult to achieve, but some are as simple as building better homes. Just last month, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that people living in environmentally friendly homes were significantly less likely to experience “sick building syndrome” – dizziness, itching, and sneezing fits due to hazardous chemicals, mold, and poor ventilation.

The effects are particularly acute in children. The Harvard researchers found that kids in “green” homes were less than half as likely to experience symptoms of asthma and 75 percent less likely to be hospitalized or miss school for asthma attacks. And it’s not just green homes. Another recent study shows that kids’ brains develop better when they’re exposed to more green space and less air pollution. Yet another shows that spending more than 30 percent of a family’s income on housing can impair their children’s cognitive achievement.

These effects can last a lifetime.

In discussing the research, Deaton told the press, “Drugs and alcohol, and suicide…are clearly the proximate cause.” Note the word proximate. Drugs and alcohol don’t walk up to strangers and kill them in the street. Something leads people to drugs and alcohol, and suicide. They may be the proximate cause.  Something else is the ultimate cause.

I don’t know the underlying reason that mortality has ticked up in middle-aged white Americans. At the moment, nobody does. But I do know that these victims are not distributed equally across the country. This kind of suffering is far more pervasive in homes that lack the resources and the support system to combat the illness before it’s too late.

We can start by building better homes. And then, better neighborhoods. And eventually, block by block, a better, stronger, healthier nation.

The Millennials Are Finally Moving, But Will They Find Home?


The long-awaited moment is here. The Millennials are on the move.

For the first time in almost a decade, America’s young adults are leaving home and forming their own households at a growing rate. The Millennial generation, now in their 20s and early 30s, have waited longer than any previous generation for this moment.

So, where will they go?

I remember the widespread optimism when I first left home in the mid-1980s. The country had spent the past century undergoing a great “regional income convergence,” with poor areas catching up to rich areas, until per-capita income was the most evenly distributed it had been in modern history. Everywhere I went, from New Jersey to Massachusetts to California to Washington DC, I found Americans of all income and skill levels living, working, and advancing together.

The Millennials face a very different America.

Since the 1980s, our cities and states have grown apart. The rich have gotten richer, and the rest have fallen behind. It used to be that these differences would drive people to move from the poorer areas to the richer ones, but not anymore. They can’t afford it.

Not everyone is worse off. A lawyer in a high-cost area like New York still winds up better off than if she lived in a low-cost area like the Deep South. As expensive as New York real estate is, it only takes about 20 percent of her paycheck. The janitor who cleans her office, however, is probably worse off. He’s paying over half his income for housing.

No wonder more people aren’t moving there.


So, where are they moving? According to the mortgage records at, the cities that top the list are Des Moines, Iowa; Provo, Utah; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In a word: Cheap.

There’s some evidence that they’re making a smart choice. Former Harvard Law School professor and current U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren famously showed that middle-class families who tried to buy their way into wealthier neighborhoods with better schools had astonishingly high bankruptcy and foreclosure rates. Cheaper is safer.

But it’s not necessarily better. Cities with lower housing costs also tend to have lower wages, less productive firms, worse transportation infrastructure, more crime, more polluted air, underperforming schools, higher unemployment, fewer retail stores, and less entertainment.

Stanford economist Rebecca Diamond weighed these costs against the benefit of affordable housing, and she found that the lower-income workers who migrate to these cities wind up worse off than the higher-income workers who live in high-cost cities. As severe as income inequality has gotten, it actually understates the chasm between the two groups. The amenities are so much better in high-cost cities that they make inequality worse because so many lower-income workers can’t afford to move to these cities.

That’s the America that the Millennials face. (As an important side note, it is the America that many non-Millennials face too.  But that’s for another time.)

Most people don’t make high incomes straight out of college. They need good jobs in productive firms to climb the socioeconomic ladder. When I left college, those opportunities were more widely available than they are today. It didn’t take a generous inheritance or an onerous loan to find a good home in a high-wage city—and it still shouldn’t.

There are two obvious ways to address this problem. The first is to make housing affordable in high-wage, high-productivity cities. The second is to raise wages, improve school quality, rebuild infrastructure, and revitalize neighborhoods in low-wage, low-productivity cities.

There is no reason that we can’t do both at the same time.

Leaving home for the first time is one of the defining moments of life. It should be an exciting experience, full of possibility, as it was for most of my generation, and it should result in a new home where a new family can grow and prosper and thrive.

Whatever cities the Millennials choose, they will bring with them a welcome infusion of talent and taste all their own. Those assets deserve to be put to the best possible uses. We are still the land of opportunity, but we have to make those opportunities available to everyone, no matter where they live. In this challenge rests the fate of a generation.

The Biggest Issue That No Presidential Candidate Is Talking About

The U.S. presidential race has done an amazing thing: It has made $28 trillion disappear.

That’s how much all the homes in the United States are worth. It’s one tenth of everything the U.S. owns. It’s more money than the entire economy produces in a year. And if you only listened to the presidential candidates, you’d never even know it existed.

This is a problem.

The president wields enormous influence over the housing market. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which answers directly to the president, spends over $40 billion a year. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are currently owned by the federal government, hold a portfolio of $5 trillion in housing assets. They buy 72 percent of all new mortgages. The IRS gives homeowners $75 billion a year through the mortgage interest deduction—and billions more when they sell their homes for long-term capital gains.

So why don’t we hear about housing on the campaign trail? Why haven’t the debate moderators asked a single question about it? Why are the $1.2 trillion in student loans so much more talked about than the $13.5 trillion in mortgage loans?

We have made this mistake before.

The presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 were similarly devoid of housing policy. No candidate dared question the unprecedented and unsustainable rise in prices or the accompanying explosion of household debt. No one asked whether underwriting standards had gotten out of control or whether the banks should be taking such highly leveraged bets on nontraditional mortgages. No one thought it was necessary to mention that such high prices would make homeownership unaffordable for the next generation or that minorities still didn’t have as much access to the American dream as the rest of the population. Even when economists raised concerns that Fannie and Freddie could go bankrupt and require a taxpayer bailout, no major politician bothered to do anything about it.

Pres Blog

We paid the price for their silence. The Great Recession was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but it didn’t have to be. Our leaders could have tempered our expectations and restricted our excesses. They could have shone a light on new financial products and trends that seemed to deviate from historical norms—and even if they didn’t know what to do about it, they could have started a conversation before it was too late.

The only defense they have is that they could not have imagined how much it all mattered. They could not have foreseen how badly it all would end.

We no longer have that defense.

We know how fragile our housing finance system really is—how precipitously it can stop working, how rampantly it can disrupt our global society, and how long it can take to reassemble that delicate stability.

We also know (though we may have forgotten) how dynamic our housing finance system can be—how much wealth it can create, how many families it can nurture, and how vibrant a community it can cultivate. To run a presidential campaign without addressing housing is to forgo these goals. Surely, none of the current hopefuls would embrace such a capitulation.

And so, we must make housing part of the conversation.

Each generation of policymakers faces new challenges in housing. For the presidents of the nineteenth century, it was carving up the frontier and building new settlements on previously ungoverned plots of land. In the 1930s, it was resolving delinquent mortgages and jumpstarting bank lending from the depths of the depression. In the 1960s, the presidents turned their attention to racial discrimination and neighborhood segregation. From the 1980s forward, the focus was financial innovation and rapid growth.

There is no shortage of challenges for the current generation. In many cities, rents are rising faster than incomes, lenders are hesitant to trust borrowers, and jobs aren’t paying enough to cover down payments. Unsurprisingly, many young adults aren’t forming their own households. For minorities, these problems are even worse, with the Great Recession deepening and reinforcing the inequities that already existed between racial groups. If these trends continue, we risk losing everything our previous presidents have fought to achieve.

The presidential campaigns to date have largely ignored these issues, and housing has gotten virtually no attention during the debates. One notable exception is tomorrow’s New Hampshire Housing Summit, sponsored by the Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, where we will hear from 5 candidates on their views on housing. We need more programs like this.

The next president will inherit $28 trillion of peril and promise. No citizen is immune to these outcomes. And yet, no candidate has told us what kind of housing system we are voting for. With so much on the line, we deserve to know.

The Challenge of a
New Century: Keeping
Housing a Home as We Age


Our homes watch over us as we age. They see everything from birth to death and in between—a child’s first steps, a beloved pet’s last breaths, from marriage to divorce, adolescence to infirmity—and through it all, they change as we change. From the decorations on the wall to the etchings on the floor, they are the unwritten diary of our lives.

Or, at least, they used to be. Today, many Americans at the end of their lives find themselves not in the homes they love, but rather in institutions they dread—assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals—and we have accepted this outcome as a fair accomplishment. We are unwitting captives in a prison of our own design.

In part, this is a result of our own success. Modern medicine has made spectacular gains. Today, the average life expectancy is nearly 80, more than double the life expectancy for most of human history. This extended lease brings new demands on the society that sustains us. And the housing sector has not kept pace.

Older homeowners typically live on fixed incomes. As a result, they spend less on maintenance and often have less access to credit. Without upkeep, their housing will deteriorate as they age. This is both dangerous and demoralizing.When these homes lose value, their owners lose wealth. On a fixed income, wealth matters. According to one recent study, when the elderly lose housing wealth, their health worsens and their likelihood of disability increases. In fact, for older populations, housing assets account for more than 90 percent of socioeconomic inequality and over half of disability inequality.

Further, with aging comes a decline in mobility. It’s harder to walk, drive, and navigate the environment. Most homes and neighborhoods aren’t equipped for this stage of life. They lack ramps, wide doorways, and bathroom grab bars. Public transit is inaccessible and inhospitable. Healthy food stores and affordable medical centers are too far away. Sidewalks are uneven and poorly lit, if they exist at all.

Faced with these obstacles, many older Americans have to choose between sedentary isolation and premature institutionalization—both of which are associated with worse health outcomes. The longer a person stays in their own home and the more space they occupy, the longer they tend to live and the less they tend to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.

In the research for his recent book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande was shocked to discover how simple changes could make such a big difference. His surgeon training told him to focus on expensive tests and medications—in short, how to stop aging—but palliative care specialists took a different approach. They prescribed better shoes to prevent falling. (Hundreds of thousands of Americans fall and break a hip every year. Almost half of them wind up in a nursing home. A fifth will never walk again.) They tried to eliminate medications that reduced the patient’s quality of life. They altered diets and routines. In short, they aimed to manage aging.

We can learn a lot from these experts. They have spent their lives thinking about an inevitability that most of us would rather ignore until it’s upon us. But by then it’s too late. And for those among us who are already facing this final hurdle—a group that will only continue to expand as the Baby Boomers retire—it is incumbent on a humane society to give them all the help and support we can. After all, we would not be here without them.


Midway through the book, Gawande tells the story of Bill Thomas, a young physician who had the radical idea to fill his nursing home with dogs and cats and birds and plants, completely outside the box that his profession had created for end-of-life care. When he ordered hundreds of parakeets, they thought he was crazy. It was a recipe for chaos.

What happened next was remarkable. “People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,” he recalls. “People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” One by one, the residents adopted the pets, and it gave them a renewed sense of purpose. They laughed and played and cared for their new animal friends.

They felt alive again.

Bill Thomas put the home in nursing home. He understood what Home Matters is all about: Our housing may change, but it should always remain a home, a place where people feel warm, safe, and valued until their very last day.

Prolonging life is one of the great accomplishments of the modern era. We need to make sure that our housing adapts to better serve prolonged lives.  

If we started designing homes with an age-in-place sensibility that allows for both aesthetics and adaptability, we would get to raise our children, become empty nesters, perhaps become widowers and mobility-challenged, yet still stay rooted to our precious memories, aging with grace, in our own home.  All the energy and investment we put into adding years to our lives is only worth it if we marshal the same effort to make those years enjoyable and fulfilling. The difference between surviving and thriving is the difference between shelter and home. For it’s only when we’re truly home that we feel that treasured presence, watching over us, sharing our journey, for as long as it’s able.

Katrina 10 Years Later: Building Back Better


Ten years ago Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. Brad Pitt launched Make It Right over two years later in 2007 to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward, arguably the neighborhood hardest hit by the storm. Despite the disproportionate level of devastation, displaced Lower Ninth Ward residents were determined to come home and rebuild. As someone who loves the city and especially its people and culture, Brad vowed to help them rebuild more sustainably than before. Inspired by architect Bill McDonough and the book he co-authored, Cradle to Cradle, Brad set the bar high – these new homes had to be resilient, beautiful, healthy and safe for people and the environment…and affordable. Too many view those requirements as mutually exclusive, but for Brad, it was the just the starting point, not the finish line. Brad sees this as a social justice issue; he believes that everyone has the right to live in safe, healthy, high-quality housing, and he saw this effort as nothing less than the opportunity to change the way affordable housing is built. Perhaps most importantly, he realized these aspirational goals could only be accomplished in partnership with the community. Post-Katrina, many planning efforts fell by the wayside as local needs were minimized or ignored. So Brad decided to start there.

I was building houses in North Carolina when I first heard about Brad’s vision from Bill McDonough. I offered to volunteer for a few weeks to help develop a plan. That was nearly nine years ago, but a year of that time was spent working in the Lower Ninth with homeowners and community leaders, learning about their neighborhood, the risks it faces and the opportunities to build back better. 

New Orleans neighborhood Credit Kevin Scott

Brad is passionate about design, and realized that any good new design should be grounded in the cultural and environmental context of the Lower Ninth Ward community. At the same time, he saw a unique chance to tap volunteer architects from all over the world, guided by local vernacular, to bring a new perspective on sustainable and resilient design through a series of community-led design charrettes. We originally invited thirteen architecture firms to lend their time and expertise, hoping a few would agree. They all said yes and we ended up with an amazing assortment of both local, national and international firms. Since then, we have expanded our design portfolio in New Orleans to include the work of over twenty-five volunteer firms.

This was not a competition; the only designs to be built would be chosen (and purchased) by a displaced Lower Ninth Ward family seeking to come home. Our team of NeighborWorks-trained homeownership counselors works with each of these families to develop an affordable loan tailored for their needs. Brad insisted this program be a hand up, not a hand out, even though it would have been faster and easier to simply give houses away.

Early on, we chose LEED for Homes as a way to codify what it meant to “build green,” and we set our sights on Platinum, as our minimum. Since we started building in 2008, Make It Right has finished 109 LEED Platinum homes for former Lower Ninth Ward residents, teachers, and first responders. We started by designing and building the best houses possible, then working our way towards affordability. We’ve learned many lessons along the way, and we seek to share those lessons with other communities in need. You can learn more about our lessons-learned and our design approach at Now, we’ve expanded our work to underserved communities in Newark, NJ, Kansas City, MO and the Native American Reservation at Fort Peck, MT. Our community-led design approach has guided each of these efforts, and that is the most important design lesson we learned from Katrina. 

Credit -  Jenny Navarro

When I heard about Home Matters and their mission to improve peoples’ lives by changing the definition of home, it reminded me a lot of where Make It Right started and the core beliefs that we hold today. So I was eager to participate in Home Matters’ first-ever Design Challenge to set an example for how affordable homes and better communities should be built. 

Home Matters recognizes that we must all work together to get there. Someone needs to set the bar high for the future of affordable housing. Someone must go first. I hope that both Home Matters and Make It Right can continue to push the envelope, because we believe that achieving higher quality, healthier, more sustainable, affordable homes and communities should be a never ending goal.

Why Home Matters: Welcome to the Conversation


How do you talk about home without thinking of the American dream?

It was Thomas Jefferson who first solidified the vision of homeownership as the foundation of American democracy. He saw it as the antidote to European aristocracy, which perpetuated itself by keeping land in the hands of the nobility. Jefferson’s radical proposal would have given 50 acres of land to every free person in his home state of Virginia.

This particular dream was never realized. Its spirit lived on, however, inspiring subsequent generations as they carved up and settled the frontier. It probably helped that the majority of the frontier, the Louisiana Purchase, was acquired by one President Thomas Jefferson. So the man who dreamt of a nation of homeowners supplied the land to make it affordable.

These days, since the collapse of the housing bubble, it may seem that the American dream is as dead as Jefferson himself. Homeownership has come under attack as a dangerous policy goal that siphons money from worthier investments and distorts the market.

But this is a gross generalization that overlooks several important facts.

For one thing, the homeownership rate peaked in 2004, just as the bubble was getting started. For another, a large body of research has now proven beyond a shadow of doubt that affordable housing policies focused on making sure there was equal access to credit did not cause the crazy run-up in prices. But most importantly, the reasons that home matters are as true today as they were in 1776.

The founding fathers were right. Where a person lives affects how they live. Homeowners are more likely to vote, to participate in their communities, and to lead satisfying lives. Owning an affordable home makes them healthier, wealthier, and smarter. Its benefits spillover into their surroundings and multiply down through the generations.

But homeownership isn’t for everyone. It’s a life choice, and not always the best one. Home matters for everyone, whether they own or rent. The real American dream ought to be a stable, affordable home for every kind of household. That is the vision of this blog – to start to re-define the American Dream in America.

You have come here because you care about home. You are not alone. I care about home too.

Raphael, Southern New Jersey family home

I suppose I’ve always cared about home—I had the good fortune to grow up in a nurturing middle-class home in southern New Jersey—but it wasn’t until I was at Stanford and working for a community-based organization in East Palo Alto that I started believing that individual actions could help the many Americans that didn’t have access to the stability and affordability that my family had enjoyed.

At Stanford, at the Federal Reserve, and later as Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I investigated and combated the constraints standing in the way of the American dream for all and met many other researchers and policymakers pursuing the same goal. This blog will explore our findings, and highlight things we all can do in taking on this great challenge.

Home Matters® is a new and exciting ally in this fight. I am partnering with them in producing this blog because they believe what I believe: home is more than housing and shelter. It’s about the environment that affects the choices we make in life and who we become. It is the foundation for our our health, our education, our individual success, our public safety and our economy.

Home Matters for Health, Education, Personal Success, Safety,

These elements are the building blocks of our society. As our nation changes, so too will the demands they place on our homes. An aging population, to give one example, requires homes equipped to ease health burdens. Stay tuned for more on this issue in my next blog post. You will quickly find that there is no shortage of ways that home matters.


And that is why we must talk about it. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said,

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

For too long, we have been silent about the costs and benefits of pursuing the New American dream and the millions of households it eludes. It is time to speak.