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Learning From Housing Policy Innovation in Small and Midsize Cities: Update on Our 2022 Grantees

In 2022, the Housing Solutions Lab awarded its first external research grants, providing support for three teams across the country to examine local housing policies and programs in small and midsize cities. With funding provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the small grants aim to elevate actionable, timely policy insights for localities to strengthen local policymaking and advance equitable housing solutions. The teams are the first group of scholars that the Lab will support in a broader effort to build a national community of housing policy researchers focused on small and midsize cities.

The 2022 grantees include three unique and exciting projects that incorporate new technologies (remote sensing and machine learning), explore untapped synergies (can community land trusts be good models for housing new immigrants?), and involve intensive collaboration with local partners (co-developing new tools for youth experiencing homelessness).

A year into their two-year grant period, the Lab checked in with the grantees to learn about their research in progress.

Modernizing Code Enforcement Using Remote Sensing: Assessing the Informal Housing Market in San Jose, CA

Daniel Ho, Ph.D. and Jennifer Suckale, Ph.D. (Stanford University) 

In recent years, California has passed a series of laws to ease barriers to the permitting and construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which offer a potential source of affordable housing amidst a severe statewide housing crisis. Yet despite these laws, studies suggest that unpermitted ADUs may remain widespread. These “informal” ADUs are never inspected for health and building code compliance and so may pose safety and legal risks to their owners and occupants.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance Lab (RegLab) have developed a cutting-edge approach to identifying informal ADUs. Using San Jose as a case study, they trained a computer vision model to compare satellite imagery from the years 2016 and 2020 to identify backyard construction. Then, working with a company called Cloud Factory, the researchers manually verified the construction picked up by the computer using Google Earth imagery, local permit data, and tax assessors’ maps to determine whether they were likely to be permitted or unpermitted ADUs.

The team is testing whether this remote sensing and machine learning method can help them address three questions: (1) how common are informal ADUs?, (2) to what extent are there income disparities between the formal and informal ADU markets?, and (3) what other characteristics distinguish these two housing markets? The answers to these questions can help policymakers develop more effective strategies for permitting and legalizing ADUs, and for ensuring they meet health and safety standards. 

Early results suggest that, despite San Jose’s efforts to ease ADU development, informal units remain very common. Once the team successfully trained the computer vision model and developed its protocol for “ground-truthing” the results, they identified thousands of unpermitted ADUs. The team has not found a correlation between household income and the likelihood of an ADU being legal or illegal, suggesting that cost is not the main barrier to getting a permit. They did find, however, what appears to be a significant, positive relationship between the number of unpermitted ADUs and severe overcrowding and low vacancy at the neighborhood level.

Community Land Trusts in Welcoming Cities: Building Inclusive Housing Models for Immigrants

Aujean Lee, Ph.D. (University of Oklahoma), Shakil Kashem, Ph.D. (Kansas State University), and Dwayne Baker, Ph.D. (Queens College, CUNY)

As cities across the country welcome immigrants and refugees, local governments and nonprofits are challenged to meet the housing needs of their new residents. This research examines one potential strategy for building housing stability and wealth for new immigrants, community land trusts. 

Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit entities that hold land on behalf of a community to maintain long-term housing affordability by separating housing costs from land costs, deed covenants, or other affordability mechanisms. A growing body of research suggests that CLTs can effectively boost financial well-being and residential stability for low-income families. But much remains unknown about the number, location, longevity, and structure of CLTs.

This research team is helping to fill these gaps by building a comprehensive database of CLTs across the U.S. Among other data points, the database includes each CLT’s address, the year it was founded, information about its administrative body, the services it provides, and its target population. Preliminary analysis suggests that a substantial share of CLTs were founded in the last five years, suggesting rapid growth in the CLT movement. At the same time, however, individual CLTs tend to be very small and grow slowly once launched, if at all. Notably, the researchers also found that ten percent of all CLTs specifically mentioned serving new immigrants.

With an understanding of where CLTs are located and how they operate, the researchers are now examining how local governments and nonprofits are using CLTs to serve immigrants. Using three Welcoming Network cities (Boise, ID; Grand Rapids, MI; and Minneapolis, MN) as case studies, the team is conducting qualitative research to explore if and how CLTs can meet the needs of new immigrants and how more targeted outreach, multilingual materials, and other strategies can turn CLTs into a powerfully inclusive housing model. 

Connecting Rural Unaccompanied Minor Youth Experiencing Homelessness With Housing and Services: Evaluating the Qualified Minor Verification Tool

Hsun-Ta Hsu, Ph.D. (University of Missouri) and Sarah Myers Tlapek, Ph.D. (Community Partnership of Southeast Missouri)

Across the country, young people experiencing homelessness wait longer than other groups to receive rapid rehousing. This is especially true of unaccompanied youth in rural communities. The State of Missouri has an unusual statute that entitles minors aged 16-17 to housing and homelessness services if they have “qualified status,” i.e., have parental consent, have parents who fail to meet their basic needs, or suffered domestic abuse. But both minors and providers may be unaware of this law or may be unsure about how to verify their status.

In response, an academic-community partnership between the University of Missouri and the Missouri Balance of State Continuum of Care is developing an evidence-based tool that removes barriers to housing and other homeless services for minor youth in rural Missouri and reduces the amount of time spent waiting for housing. 

This collaboration has two parts. First, a community-based nonprofit called the Flourish Initiative assessed the existing intake form and developed a new form that providers can fill out with youth to confirm their qualified status. Flourish also offered training sessions on how to use the new form. The researchers interviewed more than ten local service providers and conducted three focus groups with individuals with lived experience of youth homelessness to obtain feedback on the tool’s effectiveness in practice. Providers and youth made recommendations to expand the tool’s reach by providing on-demand training to providers and school liaisons, which are already being implemented. The research also uncovered an important tension: on the one hand, disclosing sensitive information on the form could help youth access benefits, and on the other, it had the potential to retraumatize youth who had experienced abuse and neglect. Ultimately, community partners revised the form to minimize potentially traumatizing disclosures. 

In the second phase of the project, the team will conduct an outcomes evaluation using Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data. The team will compare counties before and after they adopted the tool to neighboring counties that did not adopt the tool to understand whether it has increased access to rapid rehousing and other homelessness services among minor youth. 


As the research teams complete their projects over the next year, the Lab will provide ongoing support to disseminate findings to policy audiences and the public. 

The Lab’s 2023 Call for Research Proposals is now open. Researchers may apply for the funding opportunity by Friday, July 7, 2023. To stay informed about the Lab’s research initiatives, sign up for our mailing list

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