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Four New Lessons From Five Decades of Innovation, Evidence, and Impact

Message From PD&R Senior Leadership
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Four New Lessons From Five Decades of Innovation, Evidence, and Impact

Solomon Greene, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research

Solomon Greene.Solomon Greene, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.

In a February 2023 Leadership Message in PD&R Edge, I announced PD&R at 50, a new series celebrating the 50th anniversary of HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R). In that message, I explained that, over the course of the year, “every issue of PD&R Edge will feature an article that focuses on a major body of research or priority policy area, describes PD&R’s role in supporting new evidence-based and actionable insights, and discusses how these insights have supported HUD’s mission.” I also promised that “[c]ontributors to the PD&R at 50 series will highlight the relevance of past research to today’s most pressing housing and community development challenges.”

Now, 13 months later, we are wrapping up the PD&R at 50 series with Todd Richardson’s article in this issue of PD&R Edge, “Moving on to 51.” We kept our promise that the articles in the series would tackle some of today’s most pressing housing and community development challenges, and I didn’t wait until the end of the series to benefit from each article’s insights.

Over the past year, as I grappled with challenging policy development decisions or prepared to brief the HUD Secretary, our partners in Congress, other federal agencies, or leaders in the field, I often turned to a recent article in the series to better understand the issue and how PD&R approached it in the past. Reading the articles often prompted a mix of comprehension, comfort, and concern; I benefited as much from the “fresh take” on the issue as I did from the reminder that the issue really wasn’t “fresh” at all.

The experience reminded me of President Truman’s oft-quoted observation: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Reading the series made clear that learning from PD&R’s history can help us make evidence-based and historically grounded decisions today and chart a course toward a brighter and more equitable future.

In that introductory Leadership Message, I also previewed a theme that I anticipated would run throughout the series: “[C]ombining innovation and experimentation with rigorous evaluation and evidence can deliver real impacts for HUD, for the housing and community development fields, and, most important, for the people and communities nationwide facing the greatest barriers to stable and affordable housing, healthy neighborhoods, and economic opportunities. Innovation + Evidence = Impact.

This was the PD&R history I did know, and I was eager to share it with the world. PD&R’s history of innovation, evidence and impact includes the Experimental Housing Allowance Program (EHAP) and how it led to the creation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Today, the voucher program allows more than 2 million low-income households to access safe, stable, and affordable housing, and research shows that the program is one of our best tools for preventing and supporting lasting exits from homelessness. This history also includes Operation Breakthrough and its contribution to the development of the performance-based HUD Code for manufactured housing, which created scale in the manufactured housing industry that today supplies affordable housing for more than 22 million people.

After reading all 26 articles in the PD&R at 50 series, however, I learned four additional lessons about PD&R’s history that I am equally eager to share with you now. Some of these lessons were ones I experienced personally in the 2 years since I returned to HUD to lead the incredible PD&R team, but they leapt from the page (or screen) with newfound clarity in the retelling. For each of these lessons, I will share not only what I learned about PD&R’s history but also what the lesson suggests as PD&R enters the next five decades of innovation, evidence, and impact.

People power PD&R. I found it striking that so many of the articles in the series were written in the first person — told by the people who either created the history they are recounting or who learned that history from their peers and predecessors in real time as they drafted the article. I also noted that these members of the PD&R team were skilled storytellers whose recollections became more vivid and compelling as their stories intertwined, cross-referencing other articles in the series and naming past PD&R leaders and colleagues who have left indelible marks at HUD.

One great example of a compelling story is in Elizabeth Rudd’s account of PD&R’s involvement in the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. Rudd describes Todd Richardson, then a ”lanky young man,” being called into then-HUD Secretary Andew Cuomo’s office in 1997 to design a data-driven formula for allocating $500 million in CDBG-DR funds to address flood damage in the upper Midwest. Today, Richardson’s formula has been used to allocate more than $100 billion (in unadjusted dollars) to help states and localities nationwide recover equitably and resiliently from damages caused by natural hazards. 

Another excellent read is Pamela Sharpe’s two-part, people-centered history of PD&R’s Economic and Market Analysis Division (EMAD), in which she describes the evolution of economic analysis at HUD and how it supports evidence-based decisionmaking within and outside of HUD. In the first part, Sharpe describes how HUD monitors local housing market conditions and forecasts housing demand as well as how the research EMAD produces supports responsible lending in the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA’s) multifamily loan program. The second part describes how EMAD’s research has become increasingly accessible and widely used and how the EMAD team has exhibited resiliency and adaptability through both administrative changes and the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharpe is entering phased retirement this year after 45 years of service, and we recently announced that Erin Browne (who coauthored the second article describing EMAD’s history) will succeed her as director of EMAD.

So what does this mean moving forward? We clearly need to keep investing in our people by attracting the nation’s best talent, who bring with them diverse backgrounds, methodological skills, and policy expertise; supporting training, professional development opportunities, and growth pathways for all PD&R staff; creating an inclusive and supportive work environment that values all team members’ contributions; and bringing teams together (with each other, with PD&R alumni, and with field leaders) to learn from each other and identify those important interconnections in our work.

I was grateful to have two back-to-back opportunities to do just that in September 2023, when we hosted our first in-person, all-staff retreat and a 50th anniversary celebration that included not only current PD&R staff but also 10 former assistant secretaries and more than 60 PD&R alumni. Todd Richardson’s article in this issue of PD&R Edge also describes the two new teams we welcomed into PD&R this year: the Office of the Chief Data Officer, led by Lydia Taghavi, and the Office of Technical Assistance, led by Stephanie Stone. The people on those teams, as well as in PD&R’s other offices and divisions, will be what power us through future years and decades of innovation, evidence, and impact.

PD&R’s history is HUD’s history. In reading the series, I also was struck by how much of the history of HUD over the past five decades is encapsulated in PD&R’s history. From the start, I knew that PD&R had been a “horizontal” within HUD, providing support and evidence-based insights to the Secretary and all program offices. The PD&R at 50 articles, however, exposed the strength of those connections and how deep and wide PD&R’s impact throughout HUD has been.

To drive home this point, I recommend reading Paul Joice’s article, “The Evolving Federal Role in Community Development,” which elegantly captures PD&R’s central role in strengthening federal partnerships with local communities. Joice is a PD&R social science analyst who also led the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) team in Flint, Michigan, from 2014 to 2015. SC2 was a federal initiative, created and developed within PD&R, to support distressed cities during an era of federal budget austerity by deploying a multiagency team of federal employees to work in a city, at the city’s request, to address specific local needs.

Joice colorfully describes lessons from this experience as well as the history of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program at HUD, which HUD’s Office of Community Development currently manages and which PD&R has supported since the program’s launch with research, data, and capacity building. My favorite passage from the article is Joice’s metaphor describing the challenges of community development:

Doing community development work is like creating a mosaic: governments and other funders create the tiles in various colors, shapes, and sizes, and local community development practitioners assemble the pieces. Similar pieces, connected in different ways, can create completely different pictures. Some pieces fit together well, whereas others leave large gaps between them. CDBG is like a magical mosaic tile that can assume any shape or color — perfect for filling in these gaps.

PD&R has been a critically important part of the HUD mosaic since its founding five decades ago. As Joice writes, PD&R "provide[s] the data, research, and technical assistance to help practitioners use existing programs as effectively as possible," even as we, in turn, learn from these practitioners and partners about how to continuously innovate and improve.

Going forward, PD&R will continue to work closely with and support all HUD program offices, helping HUD learn from local experience and support local communities even as their needs, challenges, and opportunities evolve.

PD&R follows the facts. From the beginning, PD&R has cultivated and sustained a well-earned national reputation for rigor and independence in our research. Today, that reputation is enshrined in our HUD Evaluation Policy Statement, the most recent version of which was published in the Federal Register in 2021. The statement is long and includes a description of how we operationalize core principles and practices — including rigor, relevance, transparency, independence, ethics, and technical innovation — as being fundamental to ensuring high-quality and consistent evaluation results. But we could sum up the statement as: at PD&R, we follow the facts.

You can see this principle demonstrated throughout our history and in nearly all the contributions to the PD&R at 50 series. For example, Barry Steffen writes about how one of our most high-profile research products, the Worst Case Housing Needs report to Congress, illuminates how the United States is failing to meet the needs of very low-income renters. The Worst Case Housing Needs report uses data collected from the American Housing Survey (AHS) to describe the housing affordability and quality challenges facing the nation’s very low-income renters who do not receive federal housing assistance. (AHS is the most comprehensive national housing survey in the United States, which PD&R created and continues to sponsor, as George Carter discusses in this excellent article in the PD&R at 50 series.)

The story these reports tell about our nation’s ability to provide quality, affordable housing for all is tragic. As Steffen writes:

The prevalence of worst case needs has increased markedly over time. As the U.S. population expanded between 1978 and 2021, the nation's very low-income renters increased by nearly 81 percent, from 10.7 million to 19.3 million — but HUD's estimate of households experiencing worst case needs increased 115 percent, from 4.0 million to 8.5 million, based on the most recent report.

These data, although sobering, can help us identify new solutions and spark action, especially when we combine these data with outside data and research. I joined leaders from across HUD to do just that when we combined findings from the most recent Worst Case Housing Needs report, HUD’s Annual Homelessness Assessment report, and independent research from outside the federal government to identify lessons from the pandemic that can help researchers generate evidence-based solutions to end homelessness in the United States.

Going forward, PD&R needs to remain steadfast in its commitment to following the facts. This pursuit may pose challenges in an environment in which the public sees “fact-based” political discourse as on the decline. Reading the PD&R at 50 series and taking the long view, however, leaves me hopeful that, by maintaining our reputation for rigor and independence and demonstrating our impact, we will continue to support HUD’s mission and improve life in American communities through data, research, and evidence-based policymaking.

“Facts on paper” drive change at HUD, across the federal government, and in the communities HUD serves. In “PD&R and Public Housing,” Mark Reardon traces PD&R’s central role in developing and improving HUD’s public housing and rental assistance programs over the past 50 years. The article describes how PD&R’s extensive evaluation of EHAP (an experimental program that tested different forms of rental assistance and was one of the nation’s largest social experiments of the 1970s) led directly to the creation of the modern Housing Choice Voucher Program (which is today the nation’s largest assisted housing program). In his research for the article, Reardon uncovered a 1978 PD&R report on Section 8 housing that included a quote from Donna Shalala, then the assistant secretary for PD&R (who went on to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration):

The findings in this report are more than facts on paper. They have already been used to improve the implementation of the program and in designing program alternatives such as the moderate rehabilitation component of Section 8 Existing. The data are also contributing to policy decisions.

Reardon uses this quote to illustrate how “[t]he drive to improve programs through evidence-based policy decisions [in the 1970s] positioned PD&R not simply as a traditionally retrospective research office but also as an active participant in HUD policymaking.”

I would go a step further than Reardon and Secretary Shalala and argue that PD&R’s research has been instrumental in contributing not only to HUD’s policymaking but also to policymaking throughout the federal government and in the communities we serve. Other examples from the PD&R at 50 series illustrate this point.

Regina Gray writes about how the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), which PD&R led from 1998 to 2008, contributed to the adoption of prescriptive building codes for three main alternatives to wood framing. Today, these alternatives are widely used in the homebuilding industry to reduce construction costs and improve durability. Gray also describes how homebuilders and homeowners still use the research and tools PD&R developed through PATH to reduce costs and improve housing quality.

Todd Richardson writes about how PD&R’s research on tribal housing needs in the 1990s contributed to the passage of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act of 1996, which redefined the way the federal government works with tribes. The act created the Indian Housing Block Grant program, which is the primary means by which the federal government fulfills its trust responsibilities to provide adequate housing to Native Americans and is the single largest source of Indian housing assistance today. 

Adam Hoffberg and Bill Reeder write about the history of the FHA TOTAL Scorecard, which PD&R originally developed in the early 2000s and which continues to be updated and improved through PD&R’s research and analysis. The TOTAL Scorecard makes underwriting FHA-insured mortgages easier for lenders, and it has proven effective at both calculating risk levels and improving fairness and access in FHA lending. 

FHA recently began incorporating an applicant’s positive rental history into the TOTAL Scorecard. This move was based in part on research showing that positive rental history can expand credit access for lower-wealth families that have the most to gain from homeownership but have been historically excluded. Recent PD&R research found that borrowers who have already benefited from this policy change were younger, were more likely to be first-time homebuyers, had lower credit scores, and had less wealth, and we estimated that this policy change will result in 5,600 new mortgage originations in typical year. This policy is a great example of how the “virtuous cycle” of research, data, and innovation leads to more opportunity and access for people and communities.

Going forward, PD&R must continue to both deepen and demonstrate our impact on people and communities. We can accomplish this goal by continuing to engage diverse stakeholders in setting our research agenda, as we’ve already begun doing through the Learning Agenda process; by making our research accessible to broader audiences (such as through PD&R Edge articles); and by constantly assessing our progress in advancing HUD’s mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all” and sharing what we learn along the way! 

These are the lessons I’ve learned from reading the complete PD&R at 50 series. I invite you to dig in and discover for yourself what makes PD&R such an incredible place to work and explore what to expect as we deepen our impact in the years and decades to come.

Published Date: 2 April 2024

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.