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Democracy Vouchers in Seattle

In 2015, voters in Seattle, Washington passed I-122, an initiative to create a taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers” program to finance municipal elections.  Concerned about the growing influence of money in politics, proponents of I-122 argued that a public campaign finance system would return control of local politics to the residents of Seattle.  In this project, my colleague Jen Heerwig (Stony Brook University) and I seek to understand the impact of the voucher program on patterns of inequality in municipal finance.  Our first paper, recently published in the Urban Affairs Review, asks who fund municipal elections. Drawing on administrative records about campaign contributors in Seattle, we examine the distribution of campaign contributions in the 2013 municipal election – the last citywide election before voters passed the voucher initiative.  We find substantial evidence of representational distortions in these elections, as candidates rely on a small number of high-dollar donors concentrated in a handful of Seattle neighborhoods.  We are currently completing an evaluation of the Democracy Voucher program drawing on several sources of administrative data.  Our research compares the demographic and geographic composition of voucher users with cash donor, voters in the 2017 election, and registered voters in the city.  We find that the Seattle Democracy Voucher program increased participation in the local campaign finance system and shifted the socioeconomic and geographic composition of campaign donors, although contributors remain unrepresentative of the Seattle electorate. 

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The Housing Choice Voucher Lottery

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program provides assistance to more than two million households in the United States to find decent, safe, affordable housing on the private market.  However, unlike many other forms of federal assistance aimed at reducing social inequality and ending poverty, the voucher program is not an entitlement program. In fact, only one-quarter of income-eligible households receive assistance through the program. To choose among eligible families, local housing authorities maintain waitlists, screen applicants and select families based on local priorities. After distributing these vouchers, housing authorities monitor both voucher recipients and private landlords to ensure compliance with program rules. Drawing on in-depth interviews at housing authorities throughout the country,  this project looks at the on-the-ground rules and practices behind the voucher program – for example, how housing authorities craft waitlists, set local priorities and select voucher recipients from their lists.  As these housing authorities work to create 'market-ready citizens' suitable for the private rental market, my research investigates the way housing authorities explain program rules, set standards and outline the challenges of non-compliance for landlords and tenants in the program.  This project aims to understand how vouchers are distributed by local housing authorities and what the consequences of those selection procedures are for social inequality and poverty governance in the United States.  In doing so, the project asks a larger set of questions about housing as a component of the social safety net in the United States.

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The Sociology of Housing

Three recent publications extend the research from my first book, No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community and the Politics of Homeownership. In an analysis recently published in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, I advance scholarship at the intersection of race and homeownership by investigating the ways that homeownership preferences are stratified by race and ethnicity.  Despite substantial research investigating stratification in homeownership attainment, including the structural constraints to buying a home and building wealth through housing, sociologists have largely overlooked the reasons that Americans prefer ownership to renting and the way those preferences differ across social groups.  Drawing on the National Housing Survey, I find that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to identify the social status of ownership and the importance of building wealth as reasons to buy a home, but African-Americans are less likely to view ownership as a tool for accessing more convenient neighborhoods.  In a second paper, recently published in Sociological ScienceI show that the experience of mortgage default has a significant social life. While falling behind on a mortgage loan has significant personal consequences, including negative health outcomes and financial costs, we know little about whether the experience of delinquency or default influences the housing market experiences of other people in the defaulter’s social networks.  My analysis reveals that network exposure to people who have experienced mortgage delinquency or default is associated with more negative expectations for the housing market and more permissive attitudes toward the default behaviors of households experiencing financial hardship.  Homeowners who know others that defaulted on their mortgage loans are more likely to prefer rental housing when they next move.  Finally, I conducted an experiment through the Amazon MTurk platform to test whether support for the mortgage interest deduction - the largest federal tax deduction favoring homeowners - is sensitive to critiques about the cost, inefficiency and distribution of benefits from the policy.  I find that support among Republicans is more sensitive to information about  the costs while support among Democrats is more sensitive to information about the distribution of benefits; however, support declines the most when respondents are presented with evidence that the policy fails to promote homeownership to households on the margins - one of the stated goals of the policy.  Even though support declines under each framing condition, the overall level of support remains above sixty percent – a fact that highlights the enduring popularity of the mortgage interest deduction, even in the context of negative information. 

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Historic Preservation and Gentrification

In 1965, New York City created the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to preserve historic neighborhoods and protect architecturally significant buildings.  Over the next fifty years, the LPC designated over 100 neighborhoods in New York as historic districts.   Through a series of collaborative projects with colleagues at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, my research on historic preservation advances both empirical and theoretical approaches to studying this important land use policy.  Our first article, "Preserving History or Restricting Development?  The heterogeneous effects of historic districts on local housing markets in New York City,"  was published recently in the Journal of Urban Economics.  The paper identifies the heterogeneous impacts of historic preservation on property values in New York City.  In neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, where the lost option value to redevelop is high, we find a significant increase in property values following historic designation; however, in Manhattan, we report virtually no impact of preservation on the price of property.  In this paper, we also make a novel contribution to the study of historic preservation by identifying an increase in property values in the communities immediately surrounding a historic district.   In a second paper, "Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City," published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, we investigate whether historic designation accelerates gentrification by attracting high-income, highly-educated households into historic neighborhoods.   Although preservation does lead to an improvement in the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood, we find no evidence of racial turnover. Finally, in a book chapter recently published in the edited volume, Evidence and Innovation in Housing Law and Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2017), we compare the floor area ratio (FAR), new construction activity and the redevelopment of residential soft-sites (i.e., lots built to less than half of their zoned capacity) within and outside of historic districts to quantify the development capacity lost through historic preservation.  This analysis offers a benchmark against which policymakers can evaluate whether preservation constrains housing construction.