Statistics about housing abound, but often they’re skewed or designed to reinforce—rather than test—current beliefs among policymakers and a population that by and large is obsessed with housing. But the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy has, since 1995, asked complex questions about housing and housing policy and provided data-driven answers in order to help municipalities, community groups, and builders see their communities’ needs clearly and develop effective policies and programs to address them.
The world is taking notice: In February, the center won a $1 million MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to further its research and policy analysis in and beyond New York, where for years its quarterly and annual reports have served as bibles for those who work in both real estate development and housing policy. The center is one of 15 organizations around the world selected by the foundation for such funding.
Jointly operated by the Law School and the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, the Furman Center researches dozens of topics within four broadly defined areas of study: affordable housing, housing finance and foreclosure, land use regulation, and neighborhood change. These areas won’t change under the grant, but the award will enable new approaches to the work as well as more research participation from faculty. Furman has earmarked $650,000 of the award as a seed fund that scholars across the nation can apply to use over the next decade to launch new real estate and policy work. “Furman Center scholars have made important contributions on such issues as the foreclosure crisis, the future of home mortgage lending, fair housing and access to opportunity, and environmentally sustainable urban development,” said Margery Turner, vice president for research at the Urban Institute. “We look forward to continued collaboration with the center as it expands its capacity to engage in national policy research and debate.”
Vicki Been ’83, Boxer Family Professor of Law and the Furman Center’s director (below right), says the center’s location at the intersection of the law and public policy means its research is not only academically rigorous but also useful in informing legislative and regulatory decisions. Sometimes Furman data—such as recent research on how New York City property taxes affect renters and new initiatives looking at how homeowners’ perceived housing wealth will influence their financial decisions and retirement—spurs conversations that might not otherwise happen.
Often, those conversations lead to major policy change. In recent years, for instance, Furman played a key role in revealing that tenants were overlooked victims of the foreclosure crisis within a national dialogue that had focused mainly on homeowner distress; center research indicated that half of those affected by foreclosures in New York City were renters who had little power or protection. Policymakers used this data, which eventually led to the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009 and similar protections in many states. These were unusual federal interventions into landlord-tenant regulations typically governed by states.
Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban planning and public policy at Wagner and the center’s co-director (above left), says the award will help Furman dig deeper into how to make federal and local housing policy more effective. It’s important work, since federal subsidies provide a layer of funding for states’ and cities’ affordable housing stock around the country. In addition, Been says, the funds will help the center augment its growing trove of New York-focused research with comparative studies and data from other urban areas. She calls this multi-site research, noting that locating appropriate research partners with similar urban data sets is often a complex process.
The center recently conducted work, for example, on inclusionary zoning—the practice of requiring or providing incentives for developers to create affordable housing along with market-rate properties—to establish how and where it works in the Bay Area, the 92 municipalities around Boston, and Montgomery County, Maryland. In addition, it is collaborating with teams at Northwestern University, the University of Connecticut, and Indiana University to research how children are affected by foreclosures.
Academic research centers tend toward either an academic and data-driven bent or a policy-focused one, Ellen says, but Furman’s ability to integrate both talents—producing rigorous research that can support policymakers’ decisions—set it apart in the eyes of the MacArthur Foundation. “We saw them as having the potential to become a national research center,” said Ianna Kachoris, program officer for housing at the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s not just about their doing data analysis but about producing data that is informative to policymaking.”
Furman Center board member and founding benefactor Jay Furman ’71, principal of RD Management, says the award will leverage the center’s enormous but geographically limited New York City influence. “Vicki and Ingrid are extraordinary,” he says. “Expanding the center’s work will offer the dual advantages of addressing complex problems in America’s cities and enabling a comparative study between New York and other cities.”
As the housing correction continues to unfurl and the economy remains fragile, the Furman Center will do just that, Been and Ellen say. Research into how reduced housing wealth will affect families, and the challenges of providing high-quality affordable housing with reduced government budgets are on the center’s lengthy research agenda. “We use our data to test theories and hypotheses,” Been says. “We help policymakers base their decisions on facts and evidence.’”
—Jane Hodges is a writer in Seattle and author of Rent Vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts, and Bad Advice (Chronicle, 2012).