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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

What We’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To

In anticipation of the holiday break, which for those of us in the Northeast is a time of short, cold days, we asked our staff to recommend some books, articles, programs, or podcasts they found particularly interesting over the last year:

Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, Senior Research Analyst
My favorite (non-housing, unless lighthouses count?) book of the year was Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse by Eric Jay Dolin, a history of US nation-building told through the evolution of the lighthouse system. This book weaves together an engaging story from the themes of history, architecture, technological change, and human perseverance that lighthouses embody. My only complaint, as a Midwesterner who grew up on/is obsessed with the Great Lakes, is that the Great Lakes lighthouses didn’t get enough discussion. My favorite housing-related book this year was Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia by Willow Lung-Amam, which takes a nuanced and fascinating look at Asian American placemaking in the suburbs of Silicon Valley. A book that’s a bit more popular but related is The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. One of the best books I read in 2018, it’s a teen novel that deals with a lot of race and planning issues, including policing, schools, and geographies of opportunity. And if podcasts are on the table, Everything is Alive is amazing. The host interviews “inanimate objects” like a lamppost, an elevator, and a pillow (voiced by comedians/actors). I know it sounds super quirky (and, in fact, it is), but it’s hilarious and charming, and there were more than a few moments in the first 10 episodes that were truly touching.

Matthew Arck, Associate Analyst
As a Midwestern transplant, I thoroughly enjoyed the nuanced perspective of Megan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States, a collection of essays loosely centered on the complex ways that faith (and its vestigial presence) and a distinctively Midwestern experience manifest in and relate to a contemporary American culture often defined by the coasts. She treats her subjects with an open ambivalence that helps her to explore complicated and contradictory truths, and just enough (ok, maybe not quite enough) ironic humor to keep the mood light.

Kermit Baker, Senior Research Fellow
Climate change can be a very abstract concept. For the residents of the Marshall Islands, a group of atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, it’s an ongoing threat. A recent Frontline documentary, The Last Generation, views this ongoing threat through the eyes of three Marshallese children. We visited this area about 15 years ago when our daughter was teaching elementary school there. The highest elevation of the island we were staying on was under 10 feet, so it clearly was very vulnerable to mother nature. However, in the years since, there have been even more dire predictions of rising sea levels. There is the growing belief that the current generation of residents will likely be the last generation to live on these beautiful tropical islands.

Kerry Donahue, Associate Director Communications
Although most of my free time this year was monopolized by schoolwork and parenting, I did manage to squeeze in time to read An American Marriage, a beautiful novel by Tayari Jones about a young couple in the New South torn apart when the husband is wrongfully accused and incarcerated, and The Girl with Seven Names, the autobiography of Hyeonseo Lee, a young woman who fled North Korea for China when she was seventeen. And I’m a few years behind the rest of the literary world on this but the best book I read this year was Everything I Never Told You, Celese Ng’s 2015 debut about a family in 1970s small-town Ohio, grappling with the disappearance of their teenaged daughter.

Riordan Frost, Research Assistant
Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes,” a forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, and David M. Glick has been making waves in neighborhood zoning debates, and was the focus of a recent forum held in Boston by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. The authors comb through reams of publicly available meeting minutes from 97 towns and cities in the Boston metro between 2015-2017, focusing on planning and zoning board hearings on new housing. What they find is striking: nearly two-thirds of meeting attendees opposed new housing, even in communities that have shown high support for statewide affordable housing laws. The authors connect this to the fact that the attendees of these meetings were not representative of the communities in which these meetings took place, as attendees were disproportionately older, male, and/or homeowners. While these public meetings are important in theory, if in practice they are attracting a subset of communities that do not represent those communities and perpetuate affordability issues and political inequality, their structure, timing, and method should be reassessed. This is largely the focus of the YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) movement, which was also present in Boston this year, at an annual conference of activists called YIMBYTown.

Alexander Hermann, Research Analyst
In Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, Annie Lowrey asks what if every person in the US was given $1,000 each month unconditionally? She then evaluates the equity, redistributive, and efficiency considerations of such a policy, examining the evidence and arguments on both sides of the issue. While not a book about housing, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in its most meager form would transform the American welfare state and in its boldest form it would challenge societal norms around work’s inherent value and, indeed, what even qualifies as work.

David Luberoff, Deputy Director
This year I re-read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which details how even in the 19th century, a transformative urban megaproject was the product of skillful (and at times contentious) interactions among the various (often highly talented) people involved with the project’s design, authorization, funding, and construction. I also recommend An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn, which is a wonderful memoir about teaching The Odyssey in a freshman seminar at Bard College that also included the author’s father (who later joins Mendelsohn on a cruise that tries to retrace Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca). While obviously not housing related there’s some wonderful material in there about the meaning and draw of “home.”

Daniel McCue, Senior Research Analyst
Do 10 Minutes till Bedtime and Bear About Town count? I read and re-read both of them several times this year.

Kristin Perkins, Post-Doctoral Fellow
Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family by Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch is the story of one African-American family’s experience in the 20th century United States. Their story is connected to and helps illustrate major social changes of the 20th century including the Great Migration and civil rights. The family’s Sugar Hill brownstone is also a character in the story and the ways in which the family is influenced by their Harlem neighborhood are apparent throughout the book. Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side chronicles and analyzes recent school closings in Chicago using a variety of archival, interview, and observational methods. Of particular interest to housers is Ewing’s chapter on the ties between the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Schools, which traces the historical origins of the current conflict over public schools to housing policy decisions made decades ago. I recommend this book to anyone interested in issues surrounding public education, neighborhood change, housing policy, or Chicago enthusiasts.

Alexander von Hoffman, Senior Research Fellow
Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea by Mitchell Duneier tracks the evolution of the term from Venice to Nazi-occupied Warsaw to South Side Chicago, so to speak, as it changed meaning over the decades. Another piece, not a book, but really intriguing to me was The origins of national housing finance systems: A comparative investigation into historical variations in mortgage finance regimes,” an article by Timothy Blackwell and Sebastian Kohl that appeared in the Review of International Political Economy. While the title sounds dry, the authors go a long way in explaining what any tourist to Europe notices: the difference in prevalent types of housing from place to place. In other words, why do cities in England have little single-family semi-detached terrace houses and Paris, Berlin, and Madrid have big apartment blocks? It turns out that incomes and available housing finance had a lot to do with it.

Abbe Will, Research Associate and Associate Project Director, Remodeling Futures
Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” a New York Times Magazine article by Matthew Desmond about reframing how we think and talk about poverty struck and stuck with me. Also, I was inspired by “Lessons from Germany’s Shared Housing Models: Expanding Ownership Opportunities and Improving the Built Environment,” an article in How Housing Matters by Kathryn Reynolds, particularly because so much of our work at the Joint Center is US focused. Finally, this 99% Invisible podcast about the fairly outrageous way Oklahoma City was founded was fascinating and shocking, to say the least. (The podcast features Sam Anderson, author of Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding… its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.)