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 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.

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.

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.

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.