Affordable housing advocates fill in some blanks

Washington — Researchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development stood in front of about 25 housing advocates from all over the country Tuesday morning with a question:

“What should we be focusing on our research attention on?” Todd Richardson asked. “Do you see research gaps? Things that we haven’t really looked at?”

He heard a resounding yes. The advocates were at the annual conference hosted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, which brings together public housing advocates, researchers and low-income housing residents.

“The fair market rent calculated by HUD is useless,” Michael Carbone, who directs an agency in North Dakota for the homeless, said HUD’s fair market rents are based on 2009 data. But in the past two years, that state’s demand for rental units has exploded as workers flood in to take advantage of the shale oil boom.

Richardson nodded and took notes. “So you’re saying the [fair market rents] should be more reactive to market changes,” he said, “and there should probably be more research on how to address supply issues due to market changes as well.”

“I have an issue with the definition of affordable housing,” piped up someone in the back of the audience, who said she lives in public housing in Boston.

Richardson agreed and said HUD would look more into whom its subsidy programs are meant to serve. “That’s an excellent point. You can ask five people for their definition and you’ll probably get five different answers.”

In the audience was Mike Hanley, a consultant for the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities. Would HUD continue to collect good data on the effectiveness of a new housing strategy known as “rapid rehousing?” Hanley asked. “We’ve been successful [at rapid rehousing] because of the good data that’s backed up our advocacy work,” he said.

About 150 people work for HUD’s research arm, which has had a funding boost in recent years. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and identified housing research as a priority, Congress doubled the office’s funding in 2010. It now receives $75 million to 100 million a year. Before starting new research projects, Richardson said the office needs input from the communities actually receiving HUD money.

The way HUD collects housing data has changed. “Some technologies are making it harder for us to collect data,” Richardson said. HUD isn’t permitted to call cell phones when it does surveys, and surveys on the Internet have a low response rate. “That increasingly means door-to-door surveys” – which are a lot more expensive.

But ultimately, better data pays off in better policy, he said. “It increases the awareness of what matters.”

In Connecticut, it’s sure to affect how Gov. Dannel Malloy’s new commitment to preserving and building affordable housing units will play out.