In collaboration with the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s How
Housing Matters Initiative, Spotlight
on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries for the
next two months exploring the relationship between housing and three topics:
health, economic opportunity, and education. This commentary is the
introduction for the series, which is entitled “How Housing Matters to
Families and Communities.”
MacArthur Foundation’s interest in housing dates back more than 20 years. By
2012, we will have invested $300 million in housing research, policy, and
practice—more than two-thirds since 2000. This investment is an expression of
concern about both people and place.
2004, we took the next step in this work, and embarked on an effort to define the
boundaries and research priorities for a new interdisciplinary research program
called How Housing Matters to Families
and Communities, which is the focus of this commentary series.
process involved consultation with more than 70 scholars from an array of
disciplines, and we explored a wide range of topics, including: the
relationship between housing and labor markets and the impacts of housing programs
on work incentives and labor market supply; how state and local regulatory
regimes affect land supply, and the cost and access to affordable housing; the
housing cost-transportation nexus, and the effects of extended commute times on
family life; housing and health issues, including housing’s role in triggering
respiratory disease among children; and a broader range of child development
In particular, two literature reviews were useful
in informing the contours of the How Housing Matters research program. Johns
Hopkins University’s Sandra Newman considered the evidence on how housing
matters for human development outcomes, and a team from Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies documented the evidence of housing’s relationship to community
Both papers pointed to gaps in the quantity and
quality of the evidence about housing’s role in human and community
First, less was known about the connection of housing
to human development than to community outcomes, although rigorous research on
how neighborhoods directly or indirectly influence family outcomes was also
Second, there was an absence of scientific data and
validated measures in housing studies related to various dimensions of physical
and mental health, and to a broad range of child development issues.
Third, studies had also not been replicated in
different types of communities and markets to measure and confirm the stability
and generalizability of outcomes.
Through this exploration, we concluded that
there was a solid core of high-quality research in these areas that creative
researchers with strong backgrounds in both theory and analytical techniques would
be able to produce important empirical results of use to policymakers.
a result the Foundation announced How Housing Matters to Families and Communities in early 2009, a
five-year $25 million research commitment with two complementary strands of
work: a competitive research program and an interdisciplinary research
goal of both is to deepen empirical evidence of whether and how stable, affordable
housing may be an essential “platform” that promotes a wide array of positive
human outcomes, both directly and indirectly, by helping to ensure greater
returns from other social and public investments. In short, we wanted to
understand the value of housing, beyond providing shelter alone.
plan to achieve these goals through a range of key investments.
the How Housing Matters Research Network - comprised of
economists, developmental psychologists, sociologists, and epidemiologists - is
looking at how housing matters for young children in the context of their
immediate and extended families. This interdisciplinary network, organized in
the tradition of MacArthur's more than 25 such efforts, and chaired by Northwestern
University professor Thomas Cook, will infuse new ideas, better methods, and a
stock of empirical knowledge into a field that has lagged behind.
focusing on young children, the Research Network will be more likely to isolate
causal pathways between housing and key developmental outcomes in young
children than if it focused on adults or older kids. The groundwork has already
been laid by other prominent scholars demonstrating the return on investment
for interventions that focus on younger children.
Second, under the competitive research
program, the Foundation has made more than 30 grants to research
projects totaling over $18 million on topics including the relationship of
housing to child well-being, physical and behavioral health, economic
opportunity, and neighborhood stability. Each of these projects is exploring a
research question that has direct policy implications for how we design housing
assistance programs, and whether or not integrating service delivery across
policy domains could lead to improved outcomes for children, families, and
an era of fiscal constraint at all levels of government, building an evidence
base and understanding the implications for policy are more important than ever
if we hope to meet
our nation’s goals for healthy, safe, and economically secure families and
As today’s How
Housing Matters conference confirms, the MacArthur Foundation’s research investments are beginning to bear fruit. At the National Building
Museum in Washington, DC, more than 500 researchers, policymakers, housing and
service providers gathered to discuss this growing evidence base of How Housing Matters in three important
areas - education, health, and economic opportunity - and the best ways to
improve policy and practice in an increasingly challenging budgetary
A highlight of the conference was an
unprecedented public conversation about the importance of housing to family health
and community well-being by Secretary Shaun Donovan of the Department of
Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department
of Health and Human Services.
Over the coming weeks, this How Housing
Matters commentary series will highlight the important research and best practices
that were discussed by these Cabinet members, and by scholars and practitioners
at the conference. We are glad to be a part of this important discussion and
hope this commentary series will spark further conversation.
To print a PDF version of this document, click here.
Stegman is the director of policy and housing at the John D. and Catherine T.