Best Housing Research and Data for 2023
Todd M. Richardson, General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.
This is the time of year when I look back on the best research and data I've seen in 2023, and this post shares some of this research that you may have overlooked. What we call "the best" is entirely subjective, and my list unsurprisingly favors work that the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) supports. But 2023 saw a number of gems supported by other organizations that also are important contributions to the literature.
Best Housing Research for 2023
Building faster, cheaper, and stronger. Housing researchers are trying to solve two conflicting problems: we want to build housing that is more resilient to damage or destruction from natural disasters, but we also want to reduce construction costs. Addressing both issues successfully is a thorny problem that requires innovation. Two HUD-supported studies that help inform this challenge in 2023 are the following:
Designing for Natural Hazards Series, Volumes 1 – 5. I call this the “Earth, Wind, and Fire (and Flood!)” report because it offers strategies that go beyond the standard international residential code to make homes more resilient to natural hazards. This study conducted for PD&R by the Home Innovation Research Labs, is a helpful and accessible read for those who are building or buying a home.
Offsite Construction for Housing: Research Roadmap. For more than 50 years, PD&R has invested in research on factory-built housing construction. Why has factory-built construction failed to take off? This report, prepared for PD&R by Ryan Smith, Ivan Rupnik, Tyler Schmetterer, and Kyle Barry of MOD X and the National Institute of Building Sciences, identifies key knowledge gaps that, if filled, might resolve the need to have stronger, more resilient housing that is also less costly to build.
Ending homelessness. One of HUD’s long-term goals has been to end homelessness. Several studies this year have offered some insight on how to achieve this goal as well as what might happen if we don’t adopt policies that have been proven effective. A thoughtful summary of these reports and how they work together can be found in a recent Edge article, which discusses two complementary studies of housing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021: the first telling the story of the housed, and the second telling the story of the unhoused:
Worst Case Housing Needs in 2021. The importance of this signature report by PD&R staff Thyria Alvarez and Barry Steffen, which PD&R has published since 1978, lies not just in its most prominent statistic — in 2021, 8.53 million very low-income renter households paid more than half their income for housing, lived in substandard housing, or both, a record high — but also in its in-depth examination of why this number has grown so large.
- 2021 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress: Part 2 — Annual Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S. Part 1 of the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress tends to grab the headlines because it provides the Point-in-Time count of the total population of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, but personally, I am a bigger fan of part 2, put together by a large team at Abt Associates for HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, which focuses on unhoused people who were sheltered during the year. Part 2 of the report provides an unduplicated count for the full year, which is a much larger number than the Point-in-Time count; supplies information on the inflow and outflow of shelter; and offers more details on who is served.
Speaking of more details, we received a nice gift from California this year — an in-depth look at Californians experiencing homelessness that is informative about conditions in not only California but also the nation as a whole:
California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness. This amazing study by the University of California San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative takes a large representative sample of people experiencing homelessness in California to understand who they are and what they think would have prevented their homelessness, with the goal of rehousing them. Among its findings were those concerning pathways to homelessness: “Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder).” Among those who were nonleaseholders before becoming homeless, many had previously been leaseholders and then stayed with friends or relatives before moving on to homelessness. The study found that 90 percent of those experiencing homelessness believed that they would not have become homeless if they’d had a housing voucher.
If you are looking for information about an innovative approach to housing assistance, the Denver Basic Income Project is exploring the impact of making unconditional cash transfers to unhoused Denver residents.
The 6-month findings from the University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research are a valuable read. I recommend both the full interim quantitative and interim qualitative reports, and I’m eagerly anticipating the 12-month reports.
A subpopulation of people experiencing homelessness that is particularly challenging to count and serve are youth experiencing homelessness. HUD has been testing new ways to serve them.
The Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program: Final Report conducted for PD&R by a team at Westat, provides important insights from the youth themselves as well as providing a better understanding of the complexities associated with addressing youth homelessness.
Making housing assistance work better. There is no question that the solution to homelessness is better, cheaper housing along with more housing subsidies such as tenant-based and project-based vouchers. However, the devil, as they say, is in the details. Two studies in 2023 offered some insight into the details of our housing assistance programs, and those details suggest that we need to make some changes.
Using HUD Administrative Data to Estimate Success Rates and Search Durations for New Voucher Recipients. This great study by Ingrid Gould Ellen, Katherine O’Regan, and Sarah Strochak from New York University used HUD administrative data to demonstrate how hard it is for voucher recipients to find a landlord who will accept housing vouchers by calculating recipients’ “success rate.” The findings are not good. In 2000, the last time we examined this issue, the success rate was 69 percent; this study shows that in 2019, the success rate was 61 percent.
- Nearing the Finish Line: 5-Year Findings From the Family Self-Sufficiency Evaluation. This study conducted for HUD by Stephen Freedman, Nandita Verma, Betsy Tessler, and Barbrara Fink of MDRC is a multiyear randomized trial to determine whether low-income families benefit from job support services and from saving a portion of their rent in an escrow account that they receive after successfully completing their Family Self-Sufficiency contract. The research findings are both positive and negative; participating families utilized services they otherwise would not have received, such as financial counseling; many participants amassed significant savings in their escrow accounts, averaging $10,000; however, work and earnings outcomes for the FSS families were no better than those for the control group, although both groups demonstrated improvements. The 7-year findings study will be released in 2024.
Learning from our international colleagues. Everyone in the world needs housing, and we can all benefit from learning what strategies work in other nations. PD&R exchanges knowledge and successful strategies with other countries. This publication from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development provides some insights:
Brick by Brick (Volume 2): Better Housing Policies in the Post-COVID-19 Era. Expanding on the findings of Brick by Brick: Better Housing Policies, this second volume delves into key trends shaping housing policies in the post-COVID-19 era. The first chapter reviews current conditions and discusses the need to monitor the pandemic's impacts on housing affordability, address the energy crisis through low-carbon housing initiatives, maintain financial resilience amid fluctuating housing cycles, and facilitate the reshaping of housing markets in response to remote work and environmental concerns. The second chapter focuses on the decarbonization of the housing sector. The chapter recommends a mix of carbon pricing, energy-efficiency certification and regulation, and subsidies to meet net-zero targets while accounting for housing market specificities. The chapter also calls for deploying complementary policies to limit adverse impacts on low-income households. The third chapter examines housing finance, focusing on the tension between supporting mortgage borrowing and promoting financial resilience. It also discusses the rise of nonbank real estate finance and the potential for mortgage finance to support housing decarbonization. The fourth chapter explores how the new work-life balance enabled by the rise of remote work is reshaping housing demand, and it proposes tailored urban policies to address this shift. Overall, the report provides a comprehensive blueprint for housing policies in the postpandemic world.
Best Housing Data for 2023
Neighborhood Change Data in Near-Real Time. Just in time for the holidays, PD&R has added some new functionality to our somewhat misnamed USPS Vacant Address Data tool. Our agreement with the USPS allows nonprofits and government agencies to use these data to support their research and planning. Qualifying organizations that meet this requirement can apply for access on the site. The advantage of this dataset over many others is five-fold: it is current, with data from the third quarter of 2023 already available; the data are updated quarterly; the data can show neighborhood change at the census tract level; these data are 100 percent counts rather than survey data, offering improved accuracy; and the information in this dataset dates back to 2005, offering researchers consistency over a long period. Although this dataset is simply a count of active and vacant addresses, we can learn a lot from counting.
Example 1. Wildfire Disaster. The six census tracts shaded in the map below show the city of Paradise, California, and nearby areas that were largely destroyed in the Camp Fire of 2018. The green bar represents "active addresses" taking mail in those census tracts before the disaster struck. The red bar notes an increase in "no-stat" addresses in 2011 and then a bigger increase in 2018. The 2011 increase was due to a change in USPS policy around PO boxes and 2018 was due to the Paradise fire.
Sidebar on "No-stats". They are a special category of addresses that in general are considered "inactive addresses" by the USPS. These can be addresses whose residents collect mail at PO boxes (this was the 2011 change in the Paradise chart below). This can lead to a large number of No-Stats in a census tract that has a post office with PO boxes. In addition, when a developer is building new housing, when they get the address for the new units they are coded as "no-stat" until the unit becomes occupied, and then it moves over to being an "active address" (see example 2). USPS will also designate an address as "no-stat" after some disasters such as wildfires that displace households (example 1). USPS also has a separate category for "vacant addresses" which are identified by mail carriers as addresses that the mail is not being picked up after 90 days.
Back to the chart below. In 2018, many previously active addresses in Paradise became classified as no-stat because the homes had been destroyed. We can see how, over time, those non-stat homes were rebuilt and reoccupied by examining changes in the active residential data which has risen slowly since 2018.
Example 2. New Development. The three shaded census tracts in the map below show the Navy Yard neighborhood in Washington, D.C. In 2006, the Washington Nationals built their new stadium in the neighborhood, and the new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation followed in 2007. Those investments have spurred residential housing development. The chart below shows that the number of active residential addresses was relatively stable from 2010 to 2016. Beginning in 2016, the number of no-stat addresses rose as new addresses were requested for properties under development; as those no-stats addresses became occupied, the number of green active addresses went up. Between 2016 and 2023, the number of active addresses in this area quadrupled, from less than 2,500 active addresses to more than 10,000.
Worst Case Needs — Housing Trends Data. This year, PD&R unveiled data visualization around housing needs from 1978 to 2021 through our Worst Case Needs – Housing Trends Data, which not only offers just-in-time data for planning but also presents the data that tell the history of our nation’s housing needs. Although the chart below depicts data for the very low-income renters who serve as the benchmark for measuring worst case housing needs, this new data tool allows users to review these trends for all renters, owners, and very low-income owners as well.
Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing Dashboards. HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing has created dashboards for its Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs. There is also a dashboard for Emergency Housing Vouchers. These provide very current information on how many folks are being served and how much each household is being subsidized in the voucher program, occupancy rate in the public housing program, and many other features. The data are explorable to the PHA level.
Finally, we are wrapping up our yearlong celebration of PD&R’s 50th anniversary. If you have not had a chance to peruse the PD&R@50 Edge articles, please do; each one is a fun and enjoyable read.
Enjoy the holidays.