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Why do we tolerate housing programs that measure nothing?

What can we learn from current or previous efforts to link evidence-based outcomes to policy or program development (in the housing sector or elsewhere)?

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Affordable housing is a device to improve people’s lives – yet no one observes, much less measures, life improvement connected with housing.

In public-policy terms, we justify creating, maintaining, and preserving affordable housing in the belief that providing disadvantaged populations – poor families with children and poor elderly – with a quality home environment they cannot afford for themselves will establish a physical haven from which their lives can become better. We extend that by targeting vulnerable populations – the disabled, the extremely poor, the substance abusers, and the frail elderly – for whom we use the housing as a locus for service delivery.

Despite these obvious linkages between housing and occupant well-being – remember, without them we have no justification for spending public money on affordable housing – we have a completely schizophrenic and hypocritical attitude toward helping people rather than warehousing them. We don’t actually fund any of the social services vulnerable populations need (HUD will reluctantly fund the service coordinator but not the services themselves), and we don’t give them operating support even if states require or reward them in QAPs. Medicaid basically can’t be used to pay for housing costs, even though averting falls, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations by improving the home improvement is cheap, simple, easy to do, and strongly desired by residents and everyone else involved. And for owners and managers, the resident’s life is noli me tangere, protected by lease provisions, a right of privacy, and tort threats.

Most astonishingly, we don’t even measure whether our residents’ lives improve. REAC, SEMAP, and PHMAP tell us if the bricks are healthy; nothing tells us if the people are.

If affordable housing helps people improve their children’s education, we can’t show it with any data. If affordable housing increases their likelihood of getting a better job or even an entry job, we don’t track it, and our means-testing tenant payments affirmatively encourage concealing the event. If affordable housing lengthens the elderly’s lifespan and their independence by giving them a sense of community, a protected environment, and many professional eyes watching out for their wellbeing, there’s no systematic effort to observe and document these effects.

So we have an industry that uses a place to create or nurture social outcomes, and yet no one in that industry’s value or regulatory chain bothers to notice if it works. We are left with believers and deniers, all of whom have their eyes closed to what could readily be observed.

Why do we tolerate housing programs that measure nothing? What gets overlooked gets ignored. What gets measured gets managed. It’s time to stop measuring nothing and start measuring outcomes, and restructure compensation all along the line to pay for success.

David A. Smith is the founder and chairman of Recap Real Estate Advisors.

Welcome to the BPC Housing Commission expert forum! This forum is intended to foster interactive and substantive discussion about pressing housing issues. Each month contributors from different parts of the housing sector will be invited to respond to a discussion topic. Guest posts will feature prominently on BPC’s website, as well as be shared regularly with Housing Commissioners to help inform their work.

Have a pressing question you’d like us to consider? Please leave it in the comments section. We encourage you and our expert bloggers to add comments, contributing to the national dialogue on solutions for the future of the housing sector.

Expert bloggers are not members of the BPC Housing Commission. Any views expressed on this forum do not necessarily represent the views of the Housing Commission, its Co-Chairs, or the Bipartisan Policy Center.

2012-05-31 00:00:00

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