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.

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 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.

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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.