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The Voucher Lottery: Scarcity & Selection in the Housing Choice Voucher Program

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,  I examine the administrative choices made by housing authorities as they implement the voucher program.  For example, I ask how housing authorities craft waitlists, set local priorities and select voucher recipients from their lists.  I argue that these housing authorities work to prepare citizens for private market citizenship as they ready them for the rental market.  While the project has significant consequences for understanding the role of housing authorities in the Housing Choice Voucher program, it also contributes to broader discussions of social inequality, poverty governance and the social safety net in the United States. 

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Diversifying the Donor Pool: Municipal Campaign Finance and Seattle's Democracy Voucher Program

In 2015, voters in Seattle, Washington passed I-122, an initiative to create a taxpayer-funded Democracy Voucher program to finance municipal elections.  Concerned about the growing influence of money in politics, proponents of I-122 argued that a public financing 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 participation in municipal campaign finance.  Our first paper, 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.  Our current research on the Democracy Voucher program draws on several sources of administrative data, including data from the Seattle Elections and Ethics Commission.  Our work 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 resulted in a more diverse pool of donors, but contributors to the municipal election remain broadly unrepresentative of the Seattle electorate. 

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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 a recent paper 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 know little about the reasons that Americans prefer ownership to renting, or the way these 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.  In paper 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, I show that the experience of delinquency or default influences the housing market experiences of other people in the defaulter’s social networks.  Network exposure to people who have experienced mortgage delinquency is associated with more negative expectations for the housing market and more permissive attitudes toward the default behaviors of other households.  Homeowners who know others that defaulted on their mortgage loans are more likely to prefer rental housing when they next move.  Finally, in a paper forthcoming in Housing Policy Debate, I use original data collected through an the Amazon M-Turk experiment to test whether support for the mortgage interest deduction is sensitive to critiques about the cost, inefficiency or distribution of benefits.  I find that support among Republicans is more sensitive to information about 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. 

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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, published recently in the Journal of Urban Economicsidentifies 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.  We also identify an increase in property values in the communities immediately surrounding a historic district.   A second paper, published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, investigates 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.