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Foundation funds housing research of three UW-Madison faculty members

February 9, 2011

Three researchers with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison received honors from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to explore the role housing plays in the long-term health and well-being of children, families and communities.

Timothy Smeeding, Lawrence Berger and J. Michael Collins are mining new and unique data sets to assess the effects of income support payments on family residential stability in the face of falling housing prices and long-term joblessness.

Their main thesis is that income benefit policies are also housing stability policies that help families maintain payments for mortgages and rent and therefore avoid forced housing changes. Their goal is to identify the most effective policies for avoiding the negative impacts of housing changes on family well-being.

In the early 2000s, lower-income families’ access to homeownership expanded, and as a result, through 2006, record numbers of families became homeowners, boosting homeownership rates across traditionally underserved populations. With the advent of the housing crisis in 2007, that trend was reversed, causing an unprecedented flood of foreclosures.

For those affected, there is significant variation over time and state jurisdictions in income policies to assist them in weathering the crisis. While these programs are not targeted directly at homeowners, they have contributed to maintaining homeownership in communities ravaged by losses in manufacturing and other layoffs.

This project will enable the researchers to assess the effects of involuntary tenure transitions, housing loss and housing payment problems on many outcomes including child maltreatment, poverty status, health and other social indicators.

The findings of this research will be of particular interest to organizations supporting low-income homeownership and mitigating mortgage default, including the U.S. Department of Treasury and Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as state legislatures and child and protective service practitioners who seek to prevent bad outcomes from housing loss.

The IRP study is one of nine awarded projects selected through a competitive process from a pool of 150 as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s $25 million initiative on How Housing Matters to Families and Communities. The goal is to help policymakers better direct increasingly scarce public resources to enhance housing outcomes and to achieve broader goals of healthier, better educated and more successful families and communities.

“Thanks to the MacArthur Foundation grant, Tim Smeeding, Lonnie Berger and Michael Collins will help answer urgent questions about housing instability that are directly affecting vulnerable families and their children right now,” IRP associate director Jennifer Noyes says. “This project is a fine example of a Wisconsin Idea exchange between university researchers and policymakers and service persons in the front lines.”

Smeeding is director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs in the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Berger is associate professor in the School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty in the La Follette School of Public Affairs, Waisman Center and population health sciences graduate program.

Collins is assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology, director of the Center for Financial Security and a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.