Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How data helps communities meet housing needs

Developing solutions through research
by Lisa Sturtevant, Ph.D., Center for Housing Policy

On a recent Thursday evening, I stood in front of a group of residents gathered at Central Library in Arlington, Virginia, to talk about data. The prospect of sitting in a darkened auditorium to talk about numbers and charts brought many in the room back to the dreaded statistics class they had taken in college or grad school. But statistics are not just numbers. They can tell a story. And in this case, they tell a story of a changing community.

In an interactive, game show style discussion, I asked the audience questions, like the following:
  • What age group has grown the fastest in Arlington since 2000?
  • Has the non-white population increased or decreased?
  • What share of households in Arlington has incomes below $15,000?
  • What group is most likely to spend 30% or more of their income on housing costs?
  • What share of persons with disabilities spends more than half of their income on housing costs? 
By asking questions like these, it compelled people to reflect on what they thought their community looked like. And then by seeing the actual data, either their perceptions were confirmed, or their understanding opened up. Often it was the latter. In fact, one participant said he realized how important data was to combating preconceived notions people might have about their own community.

But the primary reason for sharing the data that night was to help guide a discussion about what the characteristics of a community mean for planning for housing. Arlington County is in the midst of developing a housing element of their comprehensive plan which will outline goals, priorities and strategies for meeting future housing needs, and the data presented at this community meeting provided a framework for having a conversation about needs and priorities.

The Center for Housing Policy helps communities use data to tell their story and respond to their housing challenges. In a project for Housing Virginia, the Center has developed employment-driven forecasts of housing demand, data that will help housing advocates talk about the economic need for affordable housing. Housing Landscape, which the Center released in late February, provides data on severe housing cost burden to help people better understand needs in their community. We will also prepare one-page state and metro area level fact sheets on housing affordability that build off of Housing Landscape. Finally, the Center is working on a database of inclusionary zoning programs which will include data that will help local communities understand the characteristics of successful inclusionary programs.

While data might seem dry and statistics frightening, the Center is constantly looking for ways to make numbers accessible and user-friendly so that communities can better tell their story and work towards solutions to affordable housing challenges.

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