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Posts By Mary Cunningham
Mary Cunningham is a Senior Research Associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center at the Urban Institute, where her research focuses on homelessness, housing, concentrated poverty and efforts to improve family self-sufficiency and overall well-being among low-income families. Ms. Cunningham’s work managing and directing qualitative and quantitative research studies includes developing research designs, survey instruments, in-depth interview guides and statistical and qualitative data analysis. She has expertise in a number of HUD homelessness and assisted housing programs, including Permanent Supportive Housing, Transitional Housing, Emergency Shelter, Housing Choice Vouchers, Family Self-Sufficiency, HOPE VI, and the Moving to Opportunity Demonstration.
Ms. Cunningham was a researcher at UI from 1997 to 2005. Prior to her return in 2008, Ms. Cunningham launched and directed the Homeless Research Institute (HRI), the research and education arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. While directing the Homelessness Research Institute, Ms. Cunningham researched and wrote extensively on homelessness and poverty. She co-chaired a Research Council on homelessness comprised of nationally recognized academics and policy researchers, and authored numerous reports, including A Research Agenda for Ending Homelessness and Homelessness Counts. Ms. Cunningham has an MPP from Georgetown University. She is currently directing study that examines the impact of housing vouchers on child welfare involvement and homelessness and writing a book on homelessness.Links: http://met.urban.org/
Sarah Gillespie Mary Cunningham
| Posted: May 21st, 2014
These days, most of the news from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) isn’t anything to brag about. But amid reports that the hospital system has failed to provide timely care, the VA is also making news as an example of how to accelerate the nation’s race to end homelessness among veterans by 2015.
For over a year now, the VA has been improving its ability to identify veterans at risk of or experiencing homelessness, connect veterans to appropriate services, and learn more about how to target and prioritize interventions.
How? The Homelessness Screening Clinical Reminder, a simple strategy that includes asking two simple questions:
- In the past two months, have you been living in stable housing that you own, rent, or stay in as part of a household?
- Are you worried or concerned that in the next two months you may NOT have stable housing that you own, rent, or stay in as part of a household?
All veterans accessing healthcare services through the Veterans Health Administration receive the screen, which is administered at the point of care (primary care, social work, substance abuse/mental health, and other specialty clinics). Veterans who screen positive for homelessness or risk of homelessness are asked follow-up questions about their current living situation and whether they would accept referrals for services. Responses are stored in the VA’s Corporate Data Warehouse along with additional information captured through their medical records, such as demographics, diagnoses, and services utilization.
According to VA research, during the first year of implementation, more than 4.3 million veterans accessing outpatient healthcare services through the Veterans Health Administration responded to the screen. Among those screened during this period, 0.8 percent reported current homelessness and 1 percent reported imminent risk.
Almost a quarter of veterans were screened at least twice during the first year. During the second screen, over 80 percent responded that their homelessness or homelessness risk was resolved.
What would we learn if child welfare agencies began asking these two simple questions every time a family entered the system?
A strong body of evidence documents the link between inadequate housing and family involvement in the child welfare system and vice versa. One study concluded that homelessness, rather than parental substance abuse or mental illness, is the strongest predictor that children would be placed with relatives or in foster care. Another found that women with histories of homelessness were nearly seven times more likely to have involvement with the child welfare system, compared with low-income, never-homeless women.
Housing stability can reduce child welfare involvement and especially new or continuing out-of-home placement. For some families, inadequate housing is a primary factor in the start of child welfare involvement. For example, a mother who is fleeing domestic violence, has no place to stay, is responding to immense stress, and cannot adequately provide for the basic needs of her child is reported to a child welfare agency.
For families already involved in the child welfare system, housing stability may be enough to end their involvement. For example, a mother who is exiting a residential drug treatment program may have met most of the necessary goals for reuniting with her children, but she needs housing before they can be returned to her.
We know that systems change and the process of coordinating information and services for families involved in both the child welfare and homelessness systems has been a long, slow process. We are continuing to learn about how to target services to the highest-need families and how housing stability and services lead to better outcomes for families.
However unlikely a role model given the current controversy, the VA’s effort to identify and prevent homelessness among veterans still offers a lesson for others. Child welfare agencies can take a big step to improve outcomes by proactively identifying housing instability among families entering the system and connecting them to the services that can keep families together.
Filed under: Child welfare, Children, Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Infrastructure |Tags: children, homelessness, Urban Institute, VA, veterans Add a Comment »
Photo Credit: mkebbe via Compfight cc
Mike Pergamit Mary Cunningham
| Posted: January 17th, 2014
In a few weeks, communities around the country will conduct their annual Point-in-Time (PIT) counts of homeless individuals. These counts provide crucial data to assist communities with the development of strategies and services, but past experience indicates these counts do a poor job of estimating the number of youth experiencing homelessness.
Making sure homeless youth are counted is important for understanding how many youth are homeless; identifying resource needs for shelters, supportive services, and housing; and for measuring progress on the federal plan to end homelessness.
Counting homeless youth requires different approaches than those used for adults. Like adults, many youth frequent homeless shelters, but some avoid them, trying to fly under the radar by sleeping on a friend’s couch or by blending in at bus depots, fast food restaurants, or the mall.
Last year, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness engaged nine communities in YouthCount!, an attempt to develop innovative methods for counting homeless youth. Though the 2014 PIT counts are quickly approaching, it’s not too late to incorporate the lessons learned into this year’s game plans. Here are five things communities can do to ensure they’re reaching homeless youth:
Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance |Tags: count, homeless, Urban Institute, youth, YouthCount! 1 Comment »
- Engage youth service providers. Agencies that serve youth are important partners. They know how to effectively communicate with the populations they serve, and frequently bring experience in counting and surveying youth. In addition, developing these community-agency partnerships creates opportunities for service integration, potentially improving service delivery to homeless youth.
- Engage LGBTQ partners.LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among the homeless youth population, and gaining an accurate count of this subpopulation requires partners that have a strong focus on reaching them. LGBTQ service providers can help by counting in locations where LGBTQ youth congregate, promoting the count within the LGBTQ youth community, and creating an environment where LGBTQ youth feel welcome.
- Engage schools as partners in outreach.As the places where many youth spend the bulk of their days, schools can be important partners in the count. There, young people can learn about the count and pass along that information to homeless youth they know who may not be attending school. Communities should consider engaging the schools to help raise awareness about the count and encourage students to participate.
- Involve youth in identifying areas for counting and for outreach. Current or formerly homeless youth can be helpful in identifying “hot spots,” areas where homeless youth are known to congregate. They can also serve as ambassadors, and provide entrée to these areas and help engage homeless youth in the count.
- Use social media for raising awareness and outreach. Data from several studies indicate that even youth living on the street are using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Tapping into these channels can help spread the word to bring forth homeless youth who are not found in the typical places.
| Posted: January 16th, 2014
Phoenix, Arizona recently announced that it has ended homelessness among chronically homeless veterans. This milestone is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it shows that evidence-based policy works.
Through Housing First and the Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary General Eric Shinseki and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, with funding from Congress, have provided communities around the country with proven and effective tools. Phoenix’s success also supports President Obama’s goal of ending homelessness among all veterans by 2015.
Just days after Phoenix, Salt Lake City announced it had reached the same milestone. There is much to celebrate, and I’m confident that more good news is forthcoming as communities work to house 57,849 homeless veterans nationwide. But to end homelessness among all veterans, policymakers will have to reach far beyond the chronically homeless, to house those who have suffered recent housing loss, and prevent former soldiers from becoming homeless in the first place.
This won’t be easy.
We cannot prevent homelessness and promote long-term housing stability without addressing housing affordability. Too many of our nation’s veterans, particularly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are struggling to pay the rent.
Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show that there is a large pool of veterans at risk of homelessness: Approximately 1.5 million households headed by a veteran spend more than half of their income on housing costs. Recent veterans with low incomes—those who have been deployed abroad since September 11, 2001, serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND)—are more likely than those who served during earlier wars and conflicts to experience rent burden. Eighty-seven percent of extremely low-income OEF/OIF/OND veterans, compared to 70 percent of extremely low-income veterans from earlier operations, are paying way too much for rent—more than 50 percent of their income. (It’s important to note that among low-income households in both groups, OEF/OIF/OND and those who served in earlier wars and conflicts, an overwhelming majority is paying too much for rent.) Over time, these rent burdens are not sustainable, leaving many veterans at grave risk for eviction and homelessness.
Through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF), VA offers funding to communities to assist those at the front door of shelters. And five communities, in collaboration with HUD and the Department of Labor, launched the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program (VHPD), a pilot project.
While these programs have shown promising early results, they have not yet been fully evaluated and are not enough to keep nearly 1.5 million at-risk veterans stably housed. One open question is whether these homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing programs, which are narrowly targeted and provide short-term subsidy or just enough financial assistance to help veterans pay missed rent payments, will help stabilize their housing over the long term.
When it comes to homelessness prevention, we already know that housing vouchers work. However, due largely to long waiting lists and demand that far outpaces supply, veterans have trouble accessing the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In the past, I’ve proposed a housing voucher program designed for veterans that links housing subsidies with employment reintegration, particularly those who are un- or underemployed and have had difficulty transitioning to civilian employment. This would take a significant investment from Congress, but I think the evidence clearly shows that without it, we’ll continue to celebrate important milestones but cannot reach the president’s worthy and honorable goal.
Filed under: Affordability, Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Phoenix |Tags: homelessness, Phoenix, Urban Institute, veterans 2 Comments »
Mary Cunningham Jennifer Biess
| Posted: November 11th, 2013
This Veterans Day, as the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps former servicemembers deal with the enduring aftereffects of war, there is at least one aspect of soldier reintegration into civilian life that has improved markedly in recent decades: our system for ensuring veterans are adequately housed.
By contrast with the early eighties, when homelessness among veterans became an issue of national concern, today, assistance for those in danger of losing housing is just a phone call away. The VA staffs the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans (1-877-4AID VET) 24/7. All veterans seeking healthcare from a VA medical center are screened for their risk of homelessness and, when necessary, flagged for assistance. Those in immediate need of housing have access to numerous programs, including transitional and permanent supportive housing, to help them get back on their feet. The VA is also investing money in research and development, through the National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans, to determine how many need housing assistance, risk factors that lead to their loss of shelter, and solutions that can keep them permanently housed.
The current administration’s intentions could not be clearer. In 2009, President Obama made it his goal to end homelessness among former servicemembers by 2015. Since that year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that the number of homeless veterans has decreased 17 percent.
Thanks to these and many other resources, today, the vast majority of soldiers returning from war go on to productive and independent lives as civilians, but a very small percentage consistently remain unstably housed. They represent the last mile in reaching the president’s goal. We know little about the housing solutions that can best assist this group, but a program being piloted in five sites—Austin, TX; San Diego, CA; Tacoma, WA; Tampa Bay, FL; and Utica, NY—is providing clues.
In 2009, Congress funded the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program (VHPD), a joint effort by HUD, the VA, and the US Department of Labor at both the federal and local levels. The VHPD deploys a spectrum of services: homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, time-limited housing search and rental assistance, case management, access to healthcare, and employment services. Across all five sites, the VHPD served 586 veterans and their families (1,366 people in 574 households) in its first year, 245 of which were recent veterans who saw active duty in the post-September 11th era.
HUD is funding an Urban Institute evaluation of the program, and, although it’s too early to draw broad conclusions, the VHPD is showing promising results.
Participants were either homeless (14 percent) or unstably housed (86 percent) when they enrolled in the VHPD. By the end of the first year, 77 percent of those who exited the program (n=950) were stably housed; 2.5 percent were unstably housed; 4 percent were at imminent risk of homelessness; and 1 percent were homeless. (Information was missing for the remaining 15 percent at the time of analysis).
The Urban Institute team that is evaluating the program conducted focus groups with participants and asked them what helped most. “That’s easy. It was the financial help,” said one veteran. “I definitely needed it.” Far and away, participants cited rental assistance as the most popular benefit. “[VHPD] paid my rent arrears,” said another former soldier. “That was the most important. It kept me off the street.”
It is unclear if those who left the VHPD stably housed will remain so without the assistance of an ongoing housing subsidy. This study will pay close attention to that question. What is already clear, however, is that housing assistance is critical: we need more of it to ensure all veterans can sleep securely and enjoy the homecoming they deserve.
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The Assisted Housing Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Assisted Housing Initiative products. The views expressed in this and other Assisted Housing Initiative commentaries are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.
Homeless veteran image from spirit of america / Shutterstock.com
Filed under: Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Income and Wealth, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Poverty, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net |Tags: homelessness, Obama, Urban Institute, veterans 4 Comments »
Abigail Baum Mary Cunningham
| Posted: July 30th, 2013
Ziggy was kicked out of her house by her brothers when she was 14, because she was a lesbian. She tried every morning to get up and continue to attend school, even though for weeks at time, she didn’t know where she would sleep each night.
There are many more youth who, like Ziggy, experience homelessness, but the true number is unknown. While there are annual efforts to count the number of people who experience homelessness, youth tend to be a hidden population that is missed and misrepresented.
The methods commonly used for counting adult homeless do not accurately capture the survival strategies common to youth. Instead of frequenting shelters and food pantries, youth are mobile and transient, preferring to hang out in public settings like bus depots, fast food restaurants, or the mall.
Further, homeless youth try to hide in plain sight, not wanting to draw attention to themselves for fear of being placed in or returned to an undesirable home situation, fear of police, wariness of the stigma attached to being homeless, and concern about being taken advantage of. They try to blend in or disappear into the background. Instead of entering homeless shelters, most of which are set up for adults, many double up or couch surf.
Strategies to remain invisible leave homeless youth vulnerable to victimization. Many experience violence and are lured into prostitution.
Last winter, nine communities across the country (Boston; Cleveland; Hennepin County, MN; Houston; Los Angeles; New York City; King County/Seattle, WA; Washington State; and Winston-Salem, NC) participated in the Youth Count! initiative to improve counts of unaccompanied homeless youth—those not connected to their families. The sites used various strategies, including conducting surveys, expanding their coverage areas to include places where youth congregate, holding magnet events to encourage youth to be counted, and coordinating with runaway and homeless youth providers, LGBTQ organizations, and schools.
The Urban Institute conducted a process study of the initiative to identify promising practices that could be adapted and taken to scale to produce credible and useful data nationwide. We just released the results today, and you can read more here.
Why count homeless youth? It is crucial to obtain more accurate, detailed information on the prevalence, characteristics, and needs of homeless youth in order to develop a system that supports youth in need and will end or prevent their homelessness. Better data on youth homelessness will strengthen the ability of agencies to design solutions and better serve youth like Ziggy.
Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Child welfare, Children, Delinquency and crime, Economic well-being, Economic well-being, Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Other, Poverty, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net |Tags: count YouthCount!, homeless, Urban Institute, youth Add a Comment »
| Posted: February 14th, 2013
Homeless man sleeping in John Marshall Park, NW Washington, DC. Photo by: Flickr users rjs 1322 used under a Creative Commons License (cc-by-sa 2.0)
It is difficult to reconcile the recent reports of 600 children living in improvised shelters in abandoned DC General Hospital buildings with the District’s year-end surplus of $400 million. As someone who has studied the lack of affordable housing in DC for more than a decade, I agree with Mayor Gray: it’s time to pay out a "prosperity dividend."
Living in a resilient, booming city has meant great things for middle- and upper-income DC residents: ramen on H Street, oysters at Union Market, ice-skating at Canal Park, and events at Living Social. New amenities like these have made the city more attractive. People want to live and play in DC, and they are buying houses in Bloomingdale, Hill East, Trinidad, and along H Street.
At the same time, the city’s prosperity has put pressure—in the form of rising rents—on its poorest families. Most are rent burdened, so even a minor fluctuation in salary or benefits puts their housing at risk. The result: homelessness among families in DC has steadily risen every year for the past five (increasing 72 percent during that time). Stimulus programs that helped slow the rise, like the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), are long gone.
The Washington Post’s picture of two adorable babies sharing a stroller to keep warm is likely to pull on some heartstrings—and it should. However, budget-minded policymakers should also know that the temporary option isn’t necessarily the cheapest option. Shelters can cost significantly more than subsidizing rent. (See this HUD study.) Some homeless families languish in shelter and transitional housing for months, or even years, a very costly response. So the lack of action is not only morally repugnant; it is bad policy.
In his state of the city address, Mayor Gray announced a $100 million commitment to affordable housing. It is unclear what he plans to do with those funds, since his office has yet to share any formal strategy. If the mayor wants to help the 600 children and their families living in DC General, along with other homeless families throughout the city, here is where he should put the money:
- $10 million for a new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP). During the recession, HPRP provided DC $7.5 million from the federal government to fund housing and supportive services. The program ended in September 2012, leaving an enormous gap to fill. This model is critical for helping families pay the rent and avoid long, costly stays in the shelter system.
- $40 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program. This established program, which operates similarly to the housing voucher program, is ready to provide subsidies to families so they can rent housing in the private market. All it needs is more money. For the past several years, funding for local rent supplements has hovered between $12 and $19 million and has served only a fraction of the need.
- $50 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund. In recent years, the Housing Trust Fund has been an unstable source for affordable housing preservation and production. It is time to shore up resources, set preservation and production goals, and build capacity among nonprofit housing developers, especially ones that develop permanent supportive housing for poor, disabled families and veterans.
A surplus of this size leaves no excuse. It is time to act.
Filed under: Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Policy Centers, State and local finance, State and Local Finance Initiative, Washington DC, Washington, D.C |Tags: homeless children, homeless prevention and rapid rehousing program, homelessness, housing production trust fund, HUD, local rent supplement program, washington dc budget surplus, Washington dc mayor vincent gray 1 Comment »
| Posted: December 12th, 2012
On Monday, the Obama Administration announced a 7.2 percent decline in homelessness among veterans (from 2011 to 2012). Can the administration meet its goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015? Yes. But they’ll need to significantly boost their efforts. Here are five things the administration can do to achieve their goal:
- Launch an initiative that pushes resources to the “big 10”: Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver. These cities have the largest numbers of homeless veterans (partly because they have large numbers of homeless people). Homeless veterans in the big 10 make up 30 percent of the total number of homeless veterans.
- Use the demobilization process as an opportunity to screen returning service members to see if they lack (or may have trouble securing) stable housing. If needed, provide homelessness prevention assistance from Support Services for Veteran Families (SSVF).
- Continue to fund the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which provides veterans with housing vouchers, plus intensive services. Target these vouchers to chronically homeless veterans with serious mental illness, as they need supportive housing the most. Also, make it easier for housing developers to use HUD-VASH as a project-based subsidy to develop housing for veterans.
- Design a housing voucher program that links housing subsidies with employment reintegration programs, which help veterans find jobs outside the military. Target these vouchers to unemployed veterans with families, particularly those who are having trouble transferring their military skills to civilian jobs. An allocation of 100,000 vouchers would be a good start. This would be a new program, so it will take support and funding from Congress to get it started.
- Continue efforts at the Department of Veterans Affairs to cut the backlog for disability benefits.
Ending homelessness among veterans is possible. Doing so would be a huge win for the Obama administration, but they must increase their efforts, investing strategically in housing assistance and supportive services. More important, it would be a victory for the nation to ensure that those who have made huge sacrifices on our behalf have a safe and stable home.
Filed under: Federal programs and policies, Homelessness, Housing and Housing Finance, Metro, Other 1 Comment »
| Posted: May 16th, 2012
Recently the Los Angeles Times editorial board supported the Los Angeles Housing Authority’s decision to allow people leaving prison to qualify for a small pool of vouchers set aside for homeless people. Let me second that idea. I study homelessness and it’s well known in my field that prison and other correctional facilities are so-called “feeder intuitions” into shelters. Approximately 5 percent of single adults who enter shelters spent the previous night in a correctional facility, according to HUD data. Even more become homeless eventually. Spending your first night out in a homeless shelter—what kind of start is that? One that could result in recidivism and a quick return to prison. And too many do return. The evidence says as many as two-thirds of those who exit prison are rearrested within three years. That’s not good for returning prisoners, their families, the communities they leave, or, for that matter, taxpayers. Prison stays are expensive. Really expensive.
The Los Angeles Housing Authority is onto something with its housing voucher plan. Housing can be a platform for those exiting prison. That is, housing can provide more than just shelter; it can be a base from which people improve their lives. The link between recidivism and stable housing makes sense intuitively: persons with stable housing may be less likely to engage in criminal activities. They may also be more likely to find and keep jobs, reunify with their families, and become productive members of society.
As my colleagues Jocelyn Fontaine and Jennifer Biess note in a recent paper, we need more evidence to empirically document these links. That’s why we should be watching the Los Angeles experiment closely and encouraging other housing authorities to loosen “one-strike” provisions that keep people with criminal histories out of subsidized housing. Keeping people in housing could mean keeping them out of prison. Now that’s a novel idea.
Filed under: Affordability, Affordable housing, Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Crime and Justice, Geographies, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing subsidies, Los Angeles, Metro, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Policy Centers, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net 1 Comment »
| Posted: April 19th, 2012
The most frequent question that comes across my desk is whether households facing foreclosure are becoming homeless. This is a tough question. The answer is that a few families may be trickling into homeless shelters, but probably not immediately after foreclosure, and not on a wide scale. Some limited evidence from DC shows this is the case. The rest of the answer requires some sleuthing. HUD data show that almost a quarter of families that entered shelter in 2010 came directly from a home they owned or rented. It is unclear how many of these situations are foreclosure related because shelters are not required to track this information. Plus, shelters are often a last stop on the residential instability road. Families facing foreclosure may move into a rental unit or double up with friends or family first. If these situations become unsustainable for whatever reason, the next stop may be the shelter. Indeed, the HUD data on shelter entry show that most families entering shelter come from doubled-up situations; but again, it is unclear how many are doubling up because of foreclosure. The lack of data is frustrating.
Previous Living Situation Before Entering Shelter
Source: HUD AHAR 2010.
Bottom line? It is hard to tell exactly how many families facing foreclosure end up homeless. But we know that forced displacement can produce residential instability, and we know from the research that residential instability is bad for school-age children, who may fall behind in class and spend a large part of the year playing catch-up. What should policymakers do about it? My colleagues Jenn Comey and Kathryn Pettit outline some recommendations here.
Filed under: Affordability, Economic well-being, Families, Homelessness, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing and the economy, Infrastructure, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Policy Centers 2 Comments »