Shelterforce Interview: Bill Apgar

William C. Apgar, Jr. is Executive Director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. He was a founding board member of the Committee for Boston Public Housing, and he has just completed a study for HUD on how to reform the FHA. Each year, the Joint Center produces a State of the Nation’s Housing report, which has become a widely referenced account of long-term trends in housing costs, housing conditions and the housing situation of the nation’s low- and moderate-income families. Shelterforce Contributing Editor Chester Hartman interviewed him on July 7 about the just-released 1995 report.

Chester Hartman: First off, a trivia question that I’m sure housers all over the US have been wanting to know the answer to: What does the “joint” in Joint Center for Housing Studies mean? When I was a fellow back there in the late ’60s it was called the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, but then MIT dropped out, and “housing” replaced “urban studies.” What’s the continuing “jointness”?

Bill Apgar: Many people have known us for years by the name Joint Center for Housing Studies or Urban Studies. We try to keep the tradition alive. Technically, we’re one of the few school-wide research centers at Harvard, and we’re jointly administered by the Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School of Government.

CH: On to more weighty matters. You folks have just come out with your annual State of the Nation’s Housing report, which has become something of a standard sourcebook. This time you did something different. Instead of just press releasing the event, you did an extensive road show, covering ten cities. Why did you do this, and what did you learn or accomplish with this local travel?

CH: Did you feel it was a successful set of trips?

BA: I thought it was good. It’s a big country, and there are a lot of issues floating around there. Just as is the case nationally, locally, housing fights to get its share of media attention. We did press conferences. We tried to hook-up with local counterparts of the national sponsoring organizations. In most instances, we would have a builder, a realtor, a mortgage banker, as well as advocates for low- and moderate-income housing, along with us at the press conference, and they distributed the report to their own constituencies at the local level. We also did some special work with editorial boards, to talk to some of the opinion leaders in the press about important housing issues, all in an attempt to get a little more attention focused on housing issues. And we did okay. We got front page in several major metropolitan newspapers. We were on the NPR feed for four or five cities; we were on Spanish language TV in the Southwest; we were on several radio stations in different cities. It’s still coming in. We’re not exactly a hard news story, but we are seeing coverage now in the Sunday real estate page in follow-up articles that are more extensive on the broad housing issues.

CH: You’ve been issuing your State of the Nation’s Housing report for more than a decade now. Each report seems to provide a selected rather than comprehensive set of data on aspects of the housing picture. What’s the process by which you decide what each year’s report will emphasize?

BA: Each year we try to give the report a new focus.We report data that others have developed – census statistics and other publications – so we define an angle that will make it interesting. Many of the factors we describe don’t change much. There are some fundamental issues in our country: income inequality, lagging homeownership rates, persistent unaffordability of rental housing. There’s not that much new from year to year. So we try to take a different slice of the same set of problems each year.

CH: The State of the Nation’s Housing document lists a number of organizations that provided additional support. For the most part they are industry heavies like the Mortgage Bankers Association, Realtors, Homebuilders, Federal Home Loan Bank Board, etc. You also list two progressive advocacy groups, the National Low Income Housing Coalition/LIHIS and the Housing Assistance Council. What role did and do those advocacy groups play by way of additional support?

BA: HAC people helped us this year tremendously as we tried to put more focus on the housing situation in rural areas. We were finally able to move away from some of the broad aggregate statistics and identify some selected rural places that illustrated the diversity of housing problems in rural areas. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, of course, is legendary for their capacity to do statistical analysis, so they are one of our most important sponsors at a technical level, because they know these numbers better than anyone; we constantly trade information with their people.

CH: The report has a quite upbeat tone, whereas for at least a third of the nation, the housing picture hardly is rosy. At some of the local presentations you just made, the low-income housing advocates who, at your request, were brought together by the National Low Income Housing Coalition were upset that the more realistic and pessimistic aspects of The State of the Nation’s Housing were underplayed. In Chicago, for instance, the complaint was that the speakers’ panel was too heavily weighted towards professionals and stressed homeownership, whereas that’s not seen as central to the housing problems of low-income households. The Coalition’s representative there noted that one of the reporters attending the press conference actually chided the panel for their optimism and questioned if they ever thought of people left out of that market. What’s your response to that criticism?

BA: I wasn’t in Chicago, but in general I think it’s a mistake for low-income advocates not to focus more on homeownership. Homeownership is a realistic option for a larger number of our households than people think. We do a disservice when we narrowly associate low-income housing problems with rental housing. In Chicago, there are a lot of low- and moderate-income people for whom homeownership is a reasonable solution for their housing problems. As to our upbeat tone, we do think that in many ways the market is beginning to open up. We think progress is being made on the fair lending agenda, for example, in that folks who had been categorically denied access to homeownership are being looked at. The current Administration is pushing hard to come up with some housing program that will survive the onslaught of the budget-cutters.

CH: The report pays a lot of attention to immigration and its impact on the housing market. What do you see as the positive and negative aspects of these newer immigration flows from Asia and Latin America in particular, both those who are documented and undocumented?

BA: For the country as a whole, immigration provides a surge of energy. Many of the immigrants are filling in underpopulated portions of the metropolitan areas, and are providing critical resources and income flows to neighborhoods that would otherwise deteriorate absent their presence. That’s an overall plus. There’s some concern that immigrant groups will compete for resources, especially public assistance resources, with historically disadvantaged native-born groups, so that could be a problem area. Another potential conflict is that where groups appear to be making progress at rapid rates there will be an insidious focus on so-called “model minorities.” “If this group can make it, why can’t that group make it?” That is damaging to the overall well-being of the country.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

CH: Do you see the undocumented flow as affecting the housing market in any particular way?

BA: Certainly in areas where that is a large share. The problem with undocumented people is that they’re ripe for abuse. It’s difficult for them to claim appropriate safeguards against abusive practices in the private market. Everything else being equal, we’d like everyone to be here under equal terms, to have the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

CH: One notable omission in the report is the entire question of housing segregation and discrimination, fair housing. There’s some race data there, but what has recently been labeled “American apartheid” seems to be entirely missing from the report. How come?

BA: I would take exception to that. One thing we tried to make clear is that whether you’re in a new fast-growing metropolitan area, a large central city or a small central city, the one common factor is that there are three basic hurdles to clear to get to the suburbs. On average, owners get to the suburbs, but renters don’t. Higher-income people get to the suburbs, lower-income people don’t. Whites get to the suburbs, but racial minorities don’t. In every major city, the proportion of total households living in the central city is far lower than the proportion of low-income renters and/or racial minorities [who live there]. And so that’s our effort to put together a simple, and we think powerful, graphic to say that this segregation by income, race, and tenure status is not unique to a few places, but is common to all metropolitan areas in the country.

CH: Given that very powerful correlation with race, income, and tenure status, do you have any thoughts on how we can end American apartheid in this country?

BA: You have to work on it both ways. We focus on homeownership, in part because we think it’s important to rebuild the homeownership base in the central cities. And that’s a way to make sure that people who have the means to be homeowners can and will be able to choose homeownership in the center cities. Right now, homeownership opportunities are often up and out of core areas, so that tendency further promotes and enhances segregation. We think it would be important to expand rental housing options more widely and low-income options more widely across the metropolitan areas. You need a multifaceted approach, but not to forget that we should support, through mortgage programs and homeownership programs, those moderate-income people who choose to live in the city.

CH: Let me move away for a moment from your annual report to some more general policy and political issues. Certainly the cutbacks in housing subsidy funds and the attacks on HUD don’t bode well for making progress toward the national housing goal of decent, affordable housing for everyone. What do you see happening in the immediate and intermediate future with respect to HUD and the low-income housing subsidy programs that are currently under attack?

BA: The attack is most intense now, but that trend has been long coming. We’ve seen a persistent erosion of national-level support for housing assistance programs going back over several decades. So we’re just seeing the ultimate result. Most of our housing proponents have been playing kind of a holding game, trying to hold on to what they had, and that holding is now failing. We’re still in a period of retrenchment. We have to get to the root cause of why American taxpayers have lost confidence in the housing programs, in housing as a major component in the solution to the nation’s social ills. We’ve had housing programs that have been poorly run, poorly designed and poorly developed, so many people have concluded that housing assistance is not part of the solution. Despite the fact that low-income housing, public housing, and other forms of housing assistance are critical housing resources, the general image is that this is money wasted. We have to turn around that perception. It may be true that in the short run we need to put back together the few programs that are workable and from that more solid base regain lost ground.

CH: What thoughts do you have on how we turn those perceptions around, so we don’t always think of Pruitt-Ingoe when we think of public housing?

BA: We need to have a better conversation nationally about the nature of race and class discrimination in our society. Many of the labels advocates throw at the general retrenchment don’t fit. I think they are too quick to claim that people are cold-hearted racists, and whether you believe that or not, that’s certainly not the way to build a national consensus on how to have a more open approach to housing problems. We need to see if we can find some way to bring people together again. We evolved into a really contentious discussion that ultimately has lost much of the middle-class white suburbanites’ support for housing programs.

CH: Most government reports, programs, and program proposals assume there’s an ample supply of low-income housing on the rental market in adequate condition that can be used to meet the housing needs of the nation’s poor. What’s your take on that assumption?

BA: It depends on your definition of poor. There are many people, such as those represented by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who have virtually no money to spend on housing, so there’s no housing supply that could satisfy their needs. There’s a minimum amount you have to pay just to keep the lights on, to keep basic maintenance in place, and millions of households can’t make those payments. And so in that sense there’s a shortage of supply. The problem is that there’s lots of housing that’s available in the $500 and up rent category in adequate condition, but not enough income to keep that housing viable. Much of that housing is located in neighborhoods that are at risk because of economic decline, so the available stock that is affordable is falling by the wayside through neighborhood change and disinvestment.

CH: A final question: Shelterforce’s readers are primarily low-income housing advocates. What suggestions do you have as to how that community can be most effective in the coming period?

BA: The key thing is to remind state and local leaders and local constituencies that housing assistance plays a vital role in these communities. The politics have changed such that gains and losses are going to be made with the state legislatures and county commissioners. The work there is far behind the work at the national level that the low-income groups have achieved. The other need is to put a more human face on the programs. Right now, the face of public housing is the face of people on the dole who have no legitimate rights to that assistance. That’s not true. That doesn’t describe public housing, so it’s a big job of education. The face of housing assistance programs is that it’s a pork-barrel that feeds rich developers. The fact is that many programs that involve public-private partnerships are quite effective in delivering good products, but the public image is it is just a big scam for rip-off artists. We have to educate the public as to what’s been going on.

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