Urban Wire While relocating, Urban researchers dust off works of seminal research
Robert Abare
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The Urban Institute has a new home. After closing out its first 50 years at 2100 M Street NW, Urban now looks forward to its next 50 at 500 L’Enfant Plaza in Southwest DC.

“Over decades, we have greatly grown our staff, expertise, and capacity for both developing world-class research and sharing it with the world,” said Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell in a press release about the move. “As we begin our next 50 years, we move to a new headquarters that empowers us to build on that legacy and embrace the future.”

While preparing for the move, Urban researchers combed through stacks of books and publications from years prior, debating what to shred, digitize, or take along. The nostalgic process reminded many of our experts how large bodies of game-changing research often started with a single question.

The evidence these early works produced, and on which Urban continues to build, has informed debates, policies, and solutions that affect the well-being of families and communities across the country.

Conducting early research on insurance coverage

In 1986, former Urban researcher Katherine Swartz authored an assessment of varying methods used to estimate the number of Americans without health insurance, published in the Journal of Economic and Social Measurement.

Since then, Urban’s estimates on health insurance coverage have been integral in understanding the effects of health policy laws and proposals across all 50 states. A recent Urban analysis, for example, shows that between 2010 and 2016, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helped 18.5 million Americans gain health insurance.

These gains in insurance were at risk when, in 2017, lawmakers considered repealing the ACA or replacing it with one of several legislative proposals.

“During this rapidly evolving debate, Urban’s work nimbly illuminated what Americans stood to win or lose under a variety of policy scenarios,” said one of Urban’s vice presidents for health policy, Stephen Zuckerman.

Measuring Chicago’s public housing transformation

In 1992, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing issued a report recommending radical new efforts to address the problems of deteriorating buildings and residents forced to live amid hazardous conditions and rampant crime.

Congress authorized the HOPE VI program, which grew to $6 billion and led to the demolition of many distressed buildings and the creation of new, mixed-income communities.

Urban tracked how this ambitious effort affected public housing residents from five cities from 1999 to 2005. The results were mixed: most residents ended up in better housing in safer neighborhoods, but few returned to the new housing, and most ended up living in other very low–income, predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Urban continued to follow residents in Chicago, which undertook the largest transformation effort in the country through 2011. The Plan for Transformation succeeded in many ways, transforming not only the housing but the troubled Chicago Housing Authority. But outcomes for families were mixed. Although they were living in better housing, they were still extremely low income, and teens, especially, struggled to acclimate to their new communities.

Still, Chicago’s experience can be a model for cities like New York, where the housing authority faces buildings in disrepair, poor management, and a lack of resources.

Identifying strategies for successful prisoner reentry

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the national evaluation of the Opportunity to Succeed program, conducted between 1995 and 2000, was the first multisite randomized clinical trial of a prisoner reentry model. The findings were mixed, but analyses indicated the program reduced participant alcohol and marijuana use, increased full-time employment, and improved family functioning.

“The study highlighted the importance of program model fidelity and assessing implementation,” said Janeen Buck Willison.

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The cover of the 1999 report on the Opportunity to Succeed program. See a recent blog post regarding the use of "felons" and similar terms.

The evaluation provided a foundation for Urban’s work on reentry, identifying what strategies best support people leaving prison and returning to productive lives in society.

In 2001, Urban embarked on the five-year, multistate Returning Home study, documenting the pathways of reintegration for formerly incarcerated people. Urban also evaluated programs aimed at helping returning fathers and established the What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse.

Examining the child care system

In 2002 and 2003, Urban researchers examined the experiences of parents, caseworkers, and child care providers in the child care system in 17 sites. They found numerous barriers for parents to get and keep subsidies and challenges for providers.

In 2010, the leadership at the Office of Child Care in the US Department of Health and Human Services cited this work as a major impetus for their focus on “family- and provider-friendly policies.” This effort, in turn, formed the basis for many key provisions in the 2014 reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which included requirements for longer periods of care for children and parents, guidance to minimize the burden of complying with reporting for parents, and guidance to design payment policies to better support providers.

Urban researchers have continued to add to this research, from national, state, and local perspectives, as many parents still lack access to high-quality and affordable child care, and the subsidy system continues to face challenges meeting families’ needs.

The issue remains in the national spotlight, after Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced a plan for universal child care and early education as part of her presidential campaign, and the Trump administration included a child care plan in its 2020 budget proposal.

Witnessing the warning signs of the housing crisis and Great Recession

In March 2007, Urban released a report detailing the rise of risky subprime mortgages in the DC area. The use of subprime loans was highest in Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8 and among African American and Latino borrowers. Across the country, these borrowers were hit hardest by the housing market collapse in 2008.

Following 2008 and the Great Recession, Urban has helped improve understanding of the crash, pointing out policy responses that had unintended consequences. Researchers also highlighted how the crisis affected various groups, like millennials, many of whom were leaving college during the downturn, and African Americans. The black-white homeownership gap has grown since the Great Recession.

Urban has also renewed its commitment to the DC region through its Urban–Greater DC initiative, providing local leaders the data, technical assistance, and issue expertise they need to strengthen efforts to upward mobility in the region.

Now, as Urban’s staff of more than 500 settles into a new headquarters, we are building out new bodies of research—which still often start with a single question—that can strengthen future decisions, advance bold ideas, and expand opportunities for all in the years to come.

Research Methods Research methods and data analytics