Why Housing Research Adds Value across Disciplines

by Veronica Gaitán and Maya Brennan

Yesterday, vice president and chief innovation officer of the Urban Institute, Erika Poethig, testified before members of the US House of Representatives to share evidence on the impact of regulations on the development of affordable multifamily rental housing. Poethig noted that many housing regulations stem from efforts to protect public health and well-being, and she highlighted research illustrating that while reducing regulations can lower costs and address economic and racial segregation, nothing can substitute for rental subsidies to close the gap for extremely low–income households.

Residential regulations reinforce a status quo of economic and racial segregation and create barriers to equal access to opportunity for predominately black and brown communities to this day. Unequal access to opportunity fuels residential and neighborhood instability, and segregation is associated with lower levels of educational attainment (among both blacks and whites) and higher homicide rates.

Poethig posited that future policy changes should blend regulatory reforms and subsidies to reduce costs while protecting and expanding measures targeted at improving outcomes for all Americans—no matter where they live, how much money they make, or the color of their skin.

Poethig cited research available through How Housing Matters and other sources that highlights housing’s centrality to and interconnectedness with a wide range of other policy domains. In doing so, she implicitly underscored the fundamental value of housing research: it extends beyond its policy field, making its insights accessible and applicable to decision makers in many professions, and ensuring that its impact extends far beyond one secular group.

The following points from Poethig’s testimony illustrate the effects that decent, stable, and affordable rental housing have on the outcomes of people of all ages. They show that housing research is an effective, multidisciplinary tool for policymakers and practitioners across many fields and that it can further a universal, cross-sector goal of creating more equitable and effective policies that promote the health and well-being of all Americans.

Child well-being

Poethig made the case that “healthy housing regulations matter for children.” Supporting this point, How Housing Matters research found that children whose households receive housing assistance have lower levels of lead in their blood than nonassisted children in low-income families, suggesting that low-income families could see improvements for their children’s health with regulations on unassisted housing. Further research found that living in poor-quality housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods is associated with lower literacy scores for children entering kindergarten. But high housing costs also harm children. A 2014 How Housing Matters study found that when families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, they cannot invest in child-enrichment items, which have a strong connection to children’s cognitive development.

Older adult well-being

As the number of senior-headed households sharply rises, older adults want to remain in their homes—or shift to rentals in their community—as long as possible. Poethig noted that policies that improve accessibility for adults with mobility impairments will be critical to meet the needs of this population and to reduce costs for the health and housing sectors. A study conducted by the Research Institute for Housing America found that more than a third of older adults had fallen within the past two years, and a third of those falls led to serious injuries. Poethig pointed out that these falls could cost Medicare and Medicaid billions of dollars. If building and planning policies emphasize accessibility today, future housing stock will require fewer and less expensive home modifications.

Environmental well-being

Poethig explained that neighborhood health disparities, which stem from historic discrimination and disinvestment, should be combatted by regulations that protect and improve the health and well-being of these populations and neighborhoods. For example, How Housing Matters research found that reducing pollution associated with traffic congestion by creating E-ZPass lanes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania can improve birth outcomes. In this study, infant health outcomes, including low birth weight and premature births, improved for expectant mothers within two kilometers of the highway. This underscores the importance of ensuring that all communities can afford housing in a neighborhood protected from air pollution.

The How Housing Matters website is an aggregator of cross-cutting research and a platform for engaging practitioners, policymakers, and researchers across many fields. Our resources offer practical tools for people committed to using evidence to create solutions to improve lives and strengthen community outcomes. Yesterday’s testimony is an example of how this research is being used to inform policy debates. Amid America’s current housing crisis, learning how to apply housing research and ensuring that it reaches the hands of change makers who can turn insights into action is more important than ever.

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