Friday, August 30, 2013

Moving Forward: Reflections on a Decade of Research at the Center for Housing Policy

by Jeffrey Lubell, Director of Housing Initiatives, Abt Associates

NHC invites guest blog posters to write on important housing topics. The views expressed by guest posters do not necessarily reflect those of NHC or its members.

For my last Moving Forward column, I thought it would be useful to review the long-term trajectory of several lines of research at the Center for Housing Policy over the past decade and see what lessons might be learned for future research efforts. When I made a similar presentation to the NHC Board of Governors, one member said it underscored why he was a member of NHC. He encouraged me to share this presentation more broadly, prompting this column.

I focus here on two lines of research—the housing challenges facing working households and the combined burdens of housing and transportation costs. Research on both fronts began before I joined the Center and I did my best to take the next logical steps. By methodically building the research base for concrete policy recommendations in each area, I believe we helped move the field forward. 

Housing Challenges Facing Working Households 

The Center started focusing on the growing housing challenges facing teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other workers more than a decade ago. Building on initial research by Michael Stegman, Roberto Quercia and George McCarthy, and continuing with research by Joseph Harkness, Sandra Newman and Barbara Lipman, the Housing America’s Working Families series showed how housing problems were creeping up the income ladder and reaching a broader share of the U.S. population. By calling attention to the challenges facing working households through these publications, and subsequently through the Housing Landscape series and the Paycheck to Paycheck database, the Center encouraged broader political support for efforts to make housing affordable.

When I arrived at the Center in 2006 and published findings from the latest Paycheck and Landscape reports, reporters wanted to know what could be done to address these challenges. To answer these questions, we reviewed high impact housing solutions to assist working households and quickly zeroed in on local and state housing policies as having the biggest potential for helping working households. The policy framework developed for this paper formed the backbone for the housing affordability toolkit on, a new online guide to local and state housing policy we launched to expand awareness of these important policy options. We subsequently expanded the toolbox to address additional policy objectives including improving residential energy efficiency, meeting the housing challenges of older adults, helping to improve disaster resistance, and fostering equitable and sustainable development. Working in partnership with LISC and the Urban Institute, we also launched a companion site,, focused on helping to prevent foreclosures and strengthen affected neighborhoods. has proven to be a valuable platform for highlighting promising local and state housing policies, which have essential roles to play in meeting the housing challenges facing working households and others. Given today’s budgetary realities, we’ve focused in particular on solutions that carry little or no out-of-pocket costs or allow localities to serve more households with constant funding, including shared equity homeownership, lifecycle underwriting, and inclusionary housing.

These and other promising local and state housing policies will be the focus of the Solutions 2013 –National Conference on State and Local Housing Policy on September 16-18 in Atlanta. The agenda for this conference is extremely strong and well worth the price of admission. If you can fit it in your schedule, come join the conversation and share, learn and connect!

Combined Costs of Housing and Transportation

In 2005, the Center published Something’s Gotta Give, which examined the consequences of living in unaffordable housing. The Center expected to find that households living in unaffordable housing had less to spend on nutritious food and health care, but the most pronounced and surprising finding was that these households spent much less on transportation. To better understand this finding, the Center commissioned a series of follow-up studies, leading to the publication of A Heavy Load, which documented the combined burdens of housing and transportation costs on working households, along with similar analyses for the Bay Area and DC and Boston metro areas. The combined burden of housing and transportation has grown over time, as confirmed in the most recent paper in this series, Losing Ground, which the Center released earlier this year in partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

I joined the Center midway through the preparation of A Heavy Load. While I was skeptical at first on the need to focus on transportation costs, the data have won me over. Given how much families trade-off between housing and transportation costs – for example, moving far from work to find lower-cost housing, only to incur higher transportation costs – it is clear to me that the combined costs paint a more complete picture of affordability than housing costs alone.

Building on this research, NHC has worked with a range of partners to develop and advocate for recommendations for preserving affordable housing near planned transit stations and ensuring that a share of new development in these areas is affordable. In a major policy victory for NHC and its partners, the Federal Transit Administration recently agreed to modify the criteria for awarding New Starts grants for new and expanded transit capacity to include incentives for affordable housing preservation and development near planned stations. We have also documented other policy options for reducing the combined costs of housing and transportation that can be implemented at the local, regional and state levels.

Lessons Learned

I draw two main conclusions from this review. First, there is real value in taking a long-term perspective on research, seeing one study as building on the next to broaden understanding of a particular issue. Second, research can play an important role in laying the groundwork for policy development by suggesting new ways of looking at old problems, identifying key issues that need to be addressed and identifying promising approaches.

While space does not permit a broader examination of the Center’s research agenda, I think the same basic conclusions apply to the Center’s research on the role that affordable housing plays in advancing health, education, asset-building and other social objectives.

Staying in Touch

I leave the next steps in the evolution of the Center’s research agenda in the able hands of my successor, Lisa Sturtevant, the new Director of the Center and NHC's Vice President for Research, and Chris Estes, the President and CEO of NHC. With their leadership, NHC and the Center are well positioned to make strong contributions to the field over the next decade!

Thank you all for your interest in the Center’s work over the years and your input into our work and agenda. Special thanks to our funders for their invaluable support for our research!

My last day at the Center was August 10. My new position is Director of Housing Initiatives at Abt Associates. Please stay in touch by following me on Twitter @JeffreyLubell or by email at

Jeffrey Lubell is Director of Housing Initiatives at Abt Associates, a public policy and business research and consulting firm. He was Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy, NHC's research affiliate, from 2006 until this year.

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