What affordable housing changemakers want to know

February 21, 2019

Dear Changemakers,

I’m thrilled to share with you the first in our Catalyst series of products that the Urban Institute will release over the next few months as part of our Next50 initiative. Our inaugural Catalyst, which focuses on affordable housing, provides an overview of promising solutions to the housing crisis being pursued in communities around the country. And it responds to what changemakers nationwide told Urban they need: new data and decisionmaking tools to help them better advance equity and upward mobility through affordable housing.

This is just the beginning. The affordable housing Catalyst is the first of eight that we will share over the coming months, thanks to the Citi Foundation’s generous support of our Next50 effort.

Inspired by our 50th anniversary, Urban’s Next50 has also been exploring what it would take to achieve financial well-being, equitable adaptation to climate change, high job quality, access to lifelong learning, improved safety and justice, healthy longevity, and an end to the racial inequities embedded in society. We aim to empower changemakers with information and insight to tackle these challenges in the decades ahead. And how do we define “changemakers”? We believe they are not only policymakers on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies but also local and state officials, social entrepreneurs, philanthropic and impact investors, and community activists. People like you.

Our affordable housing Catalyst brief—and each Catalyst for solutions we develop—is the result of a deliberate process to learn what today’s innovators need most from analysts and researchers, so they can more quickly and effectively dismantle old barriers and create new windows of opportunity. And each offers research and data priorities that Urban experts or others might pursue to fill knowledge gaps and put the most relevant insights into the hands of those striving to make progress.

For our first in this series—and for all the “What Would It Take?” questions we’re digging into—Urban is guided by a vision of a world where powerful forces of change in technology, globalization, demographics, and climate are harnessed to expand opportunity, not harden inequality. In the housing arena, we imagine a future where everyone, no matter their income level, can find and afford a quality home, where every community offers a variety of housing options, and where all people have a chance to build wealth.

Urban experts spent the past few months talking with housing leaders across the country, sifting through emerging practices and insights from ongoing housing work, and developing new data and research concepts for the field to take forward and test. We heard from people like Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf who said that “Housing market trends are always one step ahead of the bureaucracy. That’s why mayors and governments need expert researchers to signal a loud warning that the market is heating up so we can fight displacement, and protect affordable housing, before it’s a problem.” So now, Urban experts are answering that call by exploring how to build a data tool that would sound the alarm.

From our months-long process, we identified

Innovative solution sets. We see policymakers, practitioners, market leaders, advocates, philanthropists, and others testing bold solutions that 

  • Produce more housing, more quickly, and for less
  • Preserve affordable housing and neighborhood character
  • Provide housing assistance for more people at the bottom of the income ladder
  • Widen homeownership access and options 

Knowledge-building priorities. To help these efforts be more successful, we’ve heard that changemakers need answers that could be found by

  • Unlocking zoning data, so mayors and planning officials can identify specific local barriers to housing production and implement models that are working for their peer communities
  • Understanding the roots of “not in my backyard” sentiments, so housing officials, private developers, and nonprofit organizations have fact-based “playbooks” for achieving consensus
  • Monitoring the affordable housing stock, so community-based organizations and local governments can target the most important properties to preserve
  • Developing early-warning indicators of displacement, so mayors and community development officials can make effective, timely investments in housing affordability and resident protections
  • Forecasting housing assistance effects, so policymakers and advocates can assess the return on investment from expanded federal housing assistance
  • Disentangling the drivers of the racial homeownership gap, so fair housing advocates, private financial institutions, federal regulators, and local leaders can pursue the most effective strategies for closing it

Our yearlong investigation into “What Would It Take?” will culminate with our Next50 Changemaker Forum on May 15, where transformational leaders from diverse sectors will gather to hear from other changemakers and work together in knowledge labs to address select problems.

This is our first Catalyst product, and I am eager to hear your reactions. What would you need to know to make more progress in your arena? My hope is that the Urban Institute, and others who bring evidence to action, will take up your challenge.

Warmly,
Sarah