City and Regional Planning

Posted January 24, 2020

Housekeeping: Vincent Reina On Housing, Barriers and What We Still Don’t Know

Vincent Reina has said that in many ways the current housing market challenges in the U.S. are “unprecedented.”

“Rents, and rent burdens, are at all-time highs, house prices are out of reach for many households, the available stock of for-sale units in many markets remain low, and there is uncertainty about what homeownership rates will look like for future generations,” he wrote in a recent policy brief, titled “The U.S. Needs a National Vision for Housing Policy.”

Reina’s opinion comes from years of studying the challenges and proposed solutions and is informed by his previous life as practitioner in the field of housing finance. The assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning has outlined, for example, potential improvements to the country’s largest affordable rental housing programs and the possibility of retrofitting housing to help reduce utility cost burdens.

In the meantime, Reina—who has helped to develop Philadelphia’s first citywide housing plan with his colleague, and MCP graduate, Claudia Aiken at PennPraxis and whose recent study funded by the Kleinman Center found that residents in low-income households have higher energy cost burdens than the average household and that majority minority neighborhoods experience higher energy cost burdens than their white counterparts—has continued a robust research regimen to better understand the role housing, and housing insecurity, plays in our lives. We sat down with Reina to talk about some of his ongoing work and what’s coming.

You’ve been studying rental subsidies in L.A. Can you talk about that work, and what you have gleaned from that?

One thing that’s clear is there's been a federal retrenchment from national housing policy. When HUD was first created, there were federal programs created around developing place-based subsidized housing and the creation of the Section 8 voucher program. Over time, these programs have mostly either stayed stable or reduced in size with funding not maintaining pace with demand, and often being cut. Either way, though, in a paper with [Crossways Professor of City and Regional Planning] John Landis, we show that the number of income-eligible households for rental subsidies is essentially four times the eligible population. This is concerning when we consider that the share of households who are extremely rent-burdened is large. To me, that really is on display when we look at my current research on Section 8 vouchers in Los Angeles.

Prior to running its most recent voucher lottery, the City of Los Angeles estimated that several hundreds of thousands of households were eligible for the subsidy. Of those, a little over 170,000 applied to actually be put on the voucher wait list. Of those, they did a random lottery and put 20,000 on the waitlist. And as vouchers become available they're calling people off of the wait list. So there are clearly a lot of people demanding the subsidy. It’s going to be a list that could last for some time, depending on how vouchers get recycled over time.

So the 20,000 is just the waitlist?

Yes. So, you might get put on the waitlist, then you might get called eight years from now, being told that we have a voucher for you. These wait lists are challenging because naturally, the longer someone's on it, the harder it is to get in touch with them. When they get to a point when they've gone through all 20,000 on the waitlist, then the Housing Authority will do another lottery to create another wait list. What we’re doing in the L.A. study is a bunch of things: One, we’re just looking at who applies for a voucher, to be on the waitlist, who actually gets put on the waitlist, and then who's actually getting offered a voucher and using it over time, to look at the challenges around doling out a scarce resource and the trade-offs associated with that, and to also highlight the distinct challenges that households are facing while they wait to maybe receive this subsidy—and then to further document the challenges for those who receive the subsidy to actually using it. While this study is based at Penn, I am fortunate to have Research Assistant Professor Jovanna Rosen, at the University of Southern California, and some of her colleagues at the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, as collaborators on a portion of this project.

This project also reminds of how grateful I am to be at Penn, because I would not have been able to take on this research without the support I received from its University Research Foundation.

What are those barriers for people who do get such subsidies?

I have a study co-authored with Ben Winter, who was housing advisor to Mayor Eric Garcetti at the time, that came out in the journal Urban Studies. We looked at 68,000 households across the country who were offered vouchers and who used them and who didn’t. What we found in that study, a lot of which is consistent with some previous studies, is households who are black have lower odds of using their voucher. Households who are old, 62 and over, have lower odds of using a voucher. Households with kids have lower odds of using their voucher—and this is regardless of level of demand for the voucher.

It highlights general frictions and discrimination within the market. We have a lot of documentation about racial discrimination in housing markets. So, if you give a voucher to a white household and a black household, we would expect that this discrimination would make it structurally harder for a black household to use the voucher. Elderly households may have a harder time navigating private rental markets—looking for units, trying to navigate a subsidy program. We also know that oftentimes it’s harder for people with kids and multiple kids to find rental units. This study also shows that unfortunately those barriers also formalize in worse location outcomes with a voucher for some of those groups.

These barriers are real, because then they formalize in who can use the voucher. So, you have a screening process that means that subsidies are just not working as well for certain groups.This is highlighted in another study I published in Housing Policy Debate, where we saw that black households who use their voucher tend to live in higher poverty neighborhoods than similar white households, and even with a recent adjustment in the way voucher rents are calculated, there is little evidence of that gap lessening.

You're working on a book with Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett and Wharton Professor Susan Wachter. What’s that about?

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. It’s one of the most significant pieces of legislation around housing discrimination. The book, which is due to come out in 2020, has eight chapters. They’re all co-authored chapters from amazing scholars. The book itself is being called Perspectives on Fair Housing. We charged each chapter’s authors to kind of focus on their area of expertise and make the case for why fair housing is important from that perspective. The goal of the book is to highlight how, even if you just cared about one issue, you would see the importance of fair housing as a topic, and therefore the importance of the Fair Housing Act as a policy tool. When you look across the chapters, you see that issues of fair housing permeate so many facets of our society. To me, that’s the power of the book—having experts who are just focusing on this one topic, honing in on that but showing how it's not just about one topic, it’s about everything.

We are hoping this book helps advance some of the conversations around fair housing, and particularly in drawing more ties across different perspectives on fair housing to better link those narratives as we make the case for why this is one of our most pressing policy issues going forward.

This book builds off a conversation we had at a symposium that Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett, Professor Susan Wachter and I hosted at Penn on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act in 2019, which featured some of national leading fair housing scholars and practitioners.  It also serves as a compliment to an issue of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s journal Cityscape that Professor Watcher and I edited, which features a series of academic articles on this topic and was complimented by a research brief published through Penn’s Institute for Urban Research that is comprised of commentaries from multiple fair housing scholars.

What else do you have in the pipeline?

I just started a Stoneleigh Foundation fellowship. One thing that became clear in working on the [Philadelphia] housing plan and that I think about in my research is that we often set targets around housing by focusing on unit counts, because they’re quantifiable—but we invest in housing because we’re investing in neighborhoods, we’re investing in people.

It’s often hard to translate broader set of outcomes into distinct targets because it’s hard to track people over time. It involves a lot of continual assessment. And a lot of the existing policy structures and reward systems aren't in place to really do that stuff. The goal of this fellowship is to connect housing with a broader set of youth outcomes in a very clear way that’s specific to Philadelphia but also has implications nationally. I plan to use a robust set of city administrative data to look at the connection between housing, issues of housing instability, and some of our existing housing policy tools, and the trajectory of households across a host of different outcomes—from incarceration to health to education—and more clearly draw those links and then tie that specifically to tools that local agencies can use to think about those broader set of outcomes when setting housing policy goals.

This fellowship closely connects to my position this year as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Penn’s School of Nursing. The Nursing and Medical schools at Penn are at the forefront of looking at the role of place—including one’s housing and neighborhood—as a determinant of health. I’m working with Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Gina South, from the Perelman School of Medicine, on a study looking at the impact of housing investments on exposure to crime and health outcomes.  As an affiliate of the Penn Injury Science Center I am also developing several new projects looking at health and housing with many of the other great scholars working in this area, including Professor Therese Richman, Andrea B. Laporte Professor of Nursing and Associate Dean for Research & Innovation at Penn Nursing, Assistant Professor of Nursing Sara Jacoby, Professor Doug Weib, Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Perlman School of Medicine.  And through the Leonard Davis Institute, I have been able to work on a new project focused on housing affordability and health outcomes being led by Assistant Professor of Medicine Rebecca Brown and Assistant Professor of Medicine Kira Ryskina.

Any other final notes that you would want to leave readers with?

We're at a point where we have a well-documented housing affordability problem, and we have a significant body of interventions around housing affordability, but it’s kind of amazing to think how much we still don't know and how much we’re learning about the ways that housing is connected to so many facets of our neighborhood and micro and macro-economic progress. It highlights the urgency of viewing housing as an important part of understanding urban development, individual development, and urban economics and urban planning more broadly, I'd say. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.