Posted September 14, 2020

Design Fellows Tackle the Complexities of Rental Relief Across the Country

This summer, over 80 students and recent graduates and 30 faculty members across the Weitzman School—including programs in architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, urban spatial analytics, fine arts, historic preservation, Integrated Product Design, and several labs—worked on projects that are led by PennPraxis, the non-profit design practice and community engagement arm of Weitzman, or led by faculty and supported by PennPraxis.⁠ The students are employed as paid Design Fellows by PennPraxis to bring their skills to bear on projects for communities in Philadelphia and far beyond.

On Friday, August 28, as part of the Weitzman School’s New Student Orientation, teams of Design Fellows described the work they engaged in over the summer. One team of seven Fellows, all students or recent graduates of the Department of City and Regional Planning, worked under the leadership of Vincent Reina, an assistant professor of city and regional planning and the faculty director for the Housing Initiative at Penn, also based at PennPraxis, on a multi-city housing planning project for Atlanta, Baltimore, Oakland, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—six cities whose affordable and workforce housing was significantly affected by COVID-19. Four of the seven fellows–Emily Blanton (MCP’20), Sean Smith [also a Moelis Scholar], Maddy Kornhauser, Jason Schunkewitz–shared how their work for each city varied according to the needs of that locale, as well as the expertise the Fellow brought to the project. The panel was led by Julie Donofrio, managing director of PennPraxis. The three other Design Fellows on the team are Adam Ghazzawi, Gillian Tiley , and Sophia Winston.

Julie Donofrio: PennPraxis is an organization that enables all of the disciplines at the Weitzman School to come together and work on different forms of practical projects, often working with the community, enabling them to learn from and share with each other. This specific project involved many different layers of engagement, which helped the Fellows working on it learn at different levels, enabled learning within their client and community groups, and ultimately created a richer, more robust project. I'm going to ask the team to introduce the project and then we'll talk about the various ways in which engagement functioned on these various scales.

Maddy Kornhauser: As many of you probably know, renters are a particularly vulnerable group and many cities are facing eviction crises during these difficult times. We were looking at programs that cities were implementing to stop these crises. Generally, there's been a lot of work by research institutions in identifying who is the most vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19, but fewer studies are trying to really understand the nuances of these different programs and really dive into the key decision points that policymakers face when developing and implementing them.

Six of our Fellows worked with a partner city, along with one knowledge-sharing Fellow who worked to glean high-level takeaways and, while respecting the differences of the cities, bring everything together. Our research culminated in a webinar at the end of the summer where representatives from all six cities reviewed our framework, as well as having the chance to discuss with representatives from the other cities some of the best takeaways and challenges that they faced.

Julie Donofrio: Emily, can you describe the type of engagement that that was involved from your end and specifically how you worked with the client to understand their needs?

Emily Blanton: I was fortunate to work with Philadelphia’s [COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance] program. Philadelphia was one of the first movers when it came to rolling out an emergency relief program, with an application that opened in early May. By the time I joined the Design Fellows Program, the majority of the design phase of the program was complete. So, we acted as a source of support through a series of meetings and conference calls, helping them through the implementation phase of their program. We worked to streamline the process of reviewing applications as they come in, going through the various eligibility and crosschecks that are needed. We also worked to ensure that the right data sharing agreements were in place across city agencies, helping them sort out their hiccups.

Julie Donofrio: Jason, can you tell us a little bit about your work in Oakland and also the specific tools that helped to enhance that project? How did mapping serve as an engagement tool?

Jason Schunkewitz: As Emily mentioned, Philadelphia was one of the frontrunners in getting out a rent relief program. Oakland, on the other hand, was a little behind, and really just starting to have some conversations about setting up rent relief. They were primarily focusing on homelessness initially, so rent relief for all residents wasn't the top priority. We connected with Oakland’s Housing and Community Development Department, where I worked with the housing director, as well as different partner organizations within the city, to start conversations on how they could design a program.

Previous to COVID there were existing programs in the city, including one run through the city and others through different partner organizations. Part of my initial engagement was collaborating with those organizations to see how they were structuring their rent relief programs and understanding the data they collected. One of the primary components of the project was starting this data collection process and helping the City of Oakland understand what data is available, in order to really define and understand renter vulnerability throughout the city. We took a lot of different variables, whether it was health measurements from the CDC or census data in terms of housing affordability and demographics, and we plotted that on different maps. What resulted is a vulnerability index that has allowed the city to help identify where the most vulnerable populations are.

Julie Donofrio: So let's pivot to a different city and ask Sean to speak about his work in Los Angeles. While Emily was working closely with the city client and doing program evaluation, and Jason was working with a lot of community-based organizations and helping a program at its beginning, you were working with directly with residents. Can you describe that process and how it led to deeper understanding of the housing issues in Los Angeles and needed policy reforms?

Sean Smith: Over the summer, I did a follow-up for a study that the Housing Initiative at Penn started a few years ago. I interviewed people who are on Section 8 who received housing vouchers, and people who are still on a waitlist. My survey differs from past researchers’ in that I looked at the effects of COVID and how that has affected people since the pandemic started.

I was interviewing people who were dealing with the issues at hand, in real time. And when you are talking to people who are on the ground, you are just going to get a different sense of urgency. We were able to talk to people to figure out what national implications could the programs in Los Angeles have. Some cities that were affected by COVID, who may have not the same housing crisis that LA does, could take what we learned in LA and apply that to programs that are just now building a social infrastructure to combat the problem.

Maddy Kornhauser: Baltimore was a little farther along in their rental assistance program development. I came in right before they were about to implement, whereas other cities were still in the design phase. What I did for Baltimore was develop a daily analytics report that they could run to assess basic statistics on their applicant pool. The report was used by some of the higher-ups at the agencies running the program to help assess if are they reaching the right people, and track what was going on across agencies. I think Baltimore also really benefited from the ability to talk out these challenges with some of the other cities during our webinar. And hopefully, this build cross-city networks to use that knowledge to inform policymaking decisions in the future.

Julie Donofrio: There were seven of you involved in this project. So, as you were working with these cities and clients, and they were learning, you also had the opportunity to learn with and from each other’s experiences as well. Maddy, can you speak a little bit about what the interaction was like among the seven of you over the course of the summer?

Maddy Kornhauser: We were all planning students, so we all knew each other before going into this, but there was a really interesting dynamic in our group. We all had a variety of different skills. Jason is also a MUSA [Master of Urban Analytics] student, so his technical skills were incredibly useful. Sean has a background in social work, so he brought more qualitative and interviewing skills, which were really a big asset to our team. Emily’s design skills are amazing, and we relied on that for the webinar. Identifying each other’s strengths, and supporting each other, was very beneficial to the whole work in the end. We optimized our end-product and it was kind of cool seeing how everyone came together like pieces in a puzzle.