Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where we're headed: A self-introduction from the Center's new director

by Lisa Sturtevant, Ph.D., National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy

I’ve been at NHC and Center for Housing Policy for three weeks now and it’s been a whirlwind of activity—planning for the Solutions 2013 conference, releasing Paycheck to Paycheck, developing new projects, reaching out to partners. I welcome this opportunity to introduce myself and to share some of my thoughts about the importance of research to understanding housing challenges, to assessing the effectiveness of solutions and to encouraging evidence-based policy development.

Center Director and NHC Vice President for
Research Lisa Sturtevant, Ph.D.
By way of background, I come to NHC and the Center from the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, where I was deputy director and associate research professor. My research centered on residential mobility, forecasting housing demand, the relationship between regional economic growth and housing, the preservation of housing near transit, and the effect of demographic trends on housing demand and housing markets. In addition to my research, I taught statistics, program evaluation and survey methodology classes to master’s and Ph.D. students in the School of Public Policy.

Before my time at George Mason, I spent five years in the Planning Division in Arlington County, Virginia, where I helped develop updates to land use and housing plans and analyzed and disseminated demographic data about the county. Going back a bit further, my first job out of my master’s program was at Mathematica Policy Research where I did research on the impacts of changes to welfare and food stamp programs.

These past experiences have shaped my perspective about the relationship between research and policy, and my view on the leadership role the Center plays at this intersection. NHC President Chris Estes and I share a belief that the Center’s end goal must be promoting policies that expand housing affordability. We are not a social science think tank and in this housing environment, we do not have the luxury of research for the sake of research. The integration of the Center within NHC, combined with a united agenda will allow us to provide the base of evidence for housing policies that work as NHC engages in the policy, advocacy and communications work that lights housing’s path forward. Together, we will increase our impact and better achieve our unifying goals.

Below are a few things I’ve been thinking about with regards to how the Center’s research can build on its strengths and advance its mission. This isn’t a research agenda; that is something we will be thinking about more systematically in the weeks and months to come. Rather, these are my reflections on some of the things that will be central to maintaining and advancing the Center’s standing as the preeminent source for high-quality, practical housing research.
  • Connect the Research
    Research is most valuable when it can be used by practitioners to develop policies, enhance programs, improve investment decisions, educate the public and/or encourage dialogue. At the heart of the Center’s work is the leadership role it has in documenting the nature of housing needs and evaluating effective solutions, and then linking research findings to practice through accessible research reports and briefs, interactive tools, and timely webinars. We will continue to find ways to present data and analysis in user-friendly formats, and to partner with practitioners to disseminate research for the greatest impact. The Center should continue to be a leader in carrying out “research for action.”
  • Broaden the Base
    Members of the housing community rely on the Center’s research for educational, advocacy and policymaking efforts. Outreach is an essential function of the Center. We should find ways to strengthen communication not only with NHC’s current members, but also with an expanded range of stakeholders who can be brought into the housing affordability discussion. One good way to broaden interest in housing issues is to continue to pursue cross-cutting research—for example, housing and health, housing and education, housing and economic development, housing and transportation, etc. This strategy connects to NHC’s goal of expanding its membership base to state and local practitioners as well doing more work with non-traditional partners whose issues intersect with housing. A related pursuit is to partner with organizations working on affiliated topics on research proposals, conference sessions, webinars, and media outreach. The Center can be an important conduit for bringing more people “under the big tent” through research and analysis, partnership, and outreach.
  • Cultivate Capacity
    The Center’s small research staff has developed an impressive set of research expertise and skills. As the Center moves forward on its research agenda, this is a good time to think about how best to develop staff members’ areas of expertise and to provide opportunities for staff to learn new skills. Through these staff development efforts, it will be easier to position the Center to take on new types of projects. At the same time, as we build our reputation around particular research areas and develop connections with a broad set of partners, we need to think strategically about whether—and how—to add to our research capabilities, both in-house and with our advisory board and other external partners.
  • Think Regionally
    In their recent book on suburban poverty, Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of The Brookings Institution highlight the regional nature of poverty and the difficulty of developing policy solutions at the regional scale. They are not alone in noting the growing importance of regions to public policy. We live our lives at the regional scale—with regional labor markets, regional transportation networks, regional environmental resources—but little housing research, and even less housing policy, is being done at a regional level. The Center has the opportunity to be a leader in housing research at the regional scale that can serve our local and state partners that NHC is engaging to support their efforts to understand and confront their regional housing problems.
  • Integrate Thoughtfully
    Collaboration with external organizations can broaden the audience for the Center’s research and increase participation in the dialogue on housing affordability. There are opportunities for the Center and NHC to integrate our work more thoughtfully to mutually support a single strategic work plan and to capitalize on the varied and complementary skill sets of staff members, while at the same time maintaining the Center’s commitment to objective, evidence-based research standards. Research that leads to policy recommendations can benefit from the perspective of the larger NHC staff expertise. Taking advantage of the networks built among the policy staff will provide a wider audience for Center research and will create opportunities for the research to have a greater impact.
The Center for Housing Policy has a remarkable tradition of developing housing policy solutions through research, and I am honored to be a part of moving us forward. The vision for the Center—which has been shaped so admirably by Jeff Lubell and the members of the Center’s Board of Directors—serves as the guiding light for the progression of the Center for Housing Policy as it becomes a division of the National Housing Conference. I look forward to working with you on this path forward in the months and years to come.

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