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What Prompts States to Act on Housing Crises?

SPA Researchers Examine Factors that Impact State-level Policy and Funding for Affordable Housing

Many Americans across the economic spectrum struggle to find affordable housing. As federal dollars decline, states are trying out innovative approaches to address the problem, but the effort is not uniform.

SPA researchers recently analyzed factors that influenced policy decisions around state support for Housing Trust Funds (HTFs), or federal grants to create and preserve affordable housing for extremely low- and very low-income households. Their article, “Policy Diffusion in a Redistributive Policy: Affordable Housing and State Housing Trust Funds,” by Associate Professor Carla Flink, Xiaoyang Xu (SPA/PhD ’22), and Rebecca Walter of the University of Washington, was published in October in State and Local Government Review.

Looking at various factors, the authors discovered that problem severity and elected leadership were the strongest predictors of state investment in HTFs. Other less influential variables in state HTF adoption included neighbor adoption, economic standing, housing investment, and demographics.

“We’re using our policy process lens and the diffusion framework broadly to examine why policies are adopted in different entities,” Flink said of the study of HTFs, which can use designated money for housing to help with rental assistance or the creation of more housing.

The researchers were pleased to find that problem severity did indeed stimulate people to work and act. “It was good to see support for the idea that the higher the cost burden to renters, [the higher the] likelihood of adoption of housing trust funds,” Flink said. Other measures of the economy (unemployment and the state poverty rate) did not influence support for HTFs, Flink said, as policymaker investments in housing often lag during an economic downturn.

Flink and Xu said the study contributes to both housing research and policy analysis, especially the diffusion literature.

“We hope to communicate when there's opportunities for action in this policy area,” Flink said. “Our findings can show that, with housing trust funds, these are the factors that might lead policymakers to make change. It shows windows of opportunity, or the reasons that might motivate elected representatives to respond.”

Xu was brought into the project in 2018, her first year as a doctoral student. “It’s definitely been a good learning experience,” she said of her first coauthored publication. “It set me up for a good foundation on how to publish academic work, because I have seen the whole process of data collection, data analysis, thinking about the theoretical framework, and writing the actual paper.”

Flink added that it was a chance to work with scholars at other institutions in related disciplines.

“One important thing that we want to do in academia is to work outside of our silos and try to find the common threads.”