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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.