URI researchers help R.I. town to chart new directions in public housing

As the South Kingstown Housing Authority looks to revamp its public housing, a URI research team lends a hand

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 27, 2023 – Research by a team of University of Rhode Island faculty and students is helping the South Kingstown Housing Authority to chart a new course for its public housing program.

At the request of the housing authority, the research team of economists, political scientists, and historians spent more than two years developing a survey to help better understand the needs of public housing residents, compiling an oral history of public housing in South Kingstown, and producing a research paper exploring best practices in public housing across the U.S. and beyond. 

The goal of the project was to provide practical, evidence-based guidance for the housing authority as it begins the process of rethinking its approach to public housing. 

“I think this project fits very well with the University’s public commitment,” said Richard McIntyre, a professor of economics and member of the research team. “I see this as part of our job as the state’s land grant institution.”

The project got started in 2020, when the housing authority began looking at the status of the town’s public housing stock—particularly its two concentrated housing development complexes. 

“We have a lot of data confirming that these units were in bad shape and should be torn down,” said Christopher Little, chair of the South Kingstown Housing Authority. “But we needed to think about where we were going in terms of addressing the needs of the residents.”

So Little reached out to McIntyre, who Little has known for many years. McIntyre in turn reached out to Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, then a political science professor at URI (now at the University of Maryland) and director at the time of URI’s Social Science Institute for Research, Education, and Policy (SSIREP). 

SSIREP encourages cross-disciplinary research as well as outreach to communities outside the University. A project that applied faculty expertise in helping to solve a challenge faced by a neighboring town was directly in the institute’s wheelhouse, McIntyre said. Pearson-Merkowitz assembled a team of researchers including McIntyre, fellow Political Science Professor Skip Mark, historian Robert Widell, and several undergraduate and graduate students. With financial support from the University as well as the Rhode Island Foundation, the Jonnycake Center and the Town of South Kingstown, the team got to work.

Part of the project was a review of public housing practices across the U.S., coauthored by McIntyre and Pearson-Merkowitz. In particular, the research compared the outcomes of clustered housing developments with those of more distributed housing models such as voucher programs, which enable residents to use subsidies to pay private landlords.

The analysis produced findings that were a bit surprising to McIntyre.

“I think the conventional wisdom would hold that more scattered housing is probably the way to go because you avoid situations where you might be concentrating poverty in one area,” McIntyre said. “But we found that those benefits may be a bit overblown.”

For one thing, McIntyre said, residents often have difficulties with landlords who are reluctant to accept vouchers. In addition, distributed models can blunt the positive outcomes associated with community-based housing.

“You’re breaking up networks of mutual aid—things like communal food pantries and community-based activities—that can be really beneficial,” McIntyre said. “We also found examples of clustered housing that can actually work pretty well, particularly when they involve tenants in the management of the complex.”

Little said he found the analysis similarly eye-opening.

“I went into this process with a sense that scattered-site housing would likely be better,” he said. “But the analysis showed that’s not necessarily the case. It turns out the residents like a sense of community and to have a feeling that they’re participating in governance. That, to me, was very helpful to know.”

The findings dovetail with data that emerged from the survey of South Kingstown public housing residents conducted as part of the project. The survey found that while most residents were dissatisfied with the condition of their public housing units (which Little said was not surprising given the age of those units), a solid majority—65%—said they were happy with the units’ location.

Also echoed in the survey was the importance of including tenants in decision-making processes.

“The majority of residents were willing to donate their time to helping to improve their complexes, wanted to be involved in decision-making, and often felt unheard,” said Skip Mark, who led the survey work. “I think the survey shows that participatory decision making in housing would go a long way to improving public housing.”

McIntyre says he hopes the materials will provide important guidance for the housing authority’s decision-making moving forward.

“We didn’t feel like it was our job to tell the housing authority what to do,” McIntyre said. “But we wanted to distill some lessons learned from many places around the U.S. so they could think about how they might apply to South Kingstown.”

Little said he and the other members of the housing authority board were pleased with the input.

“It’s very useful for us, not only in terms of our own knowledge on how to proceed,” Little said, “but also in giving us something that helps us explain to funders why we are doing what we’re doing.”

The project was also beneficial to the students—particularly the undergraduates—who got the chance to work on it. Mary Lind, who is now a political science graduate student at URI, was one of those undergraduate researchers. Lind says the project provided a boost heading into graduate school.

“Having had the experience of administering the surveys, analyzing the results, and then writing my own paper based on this project also really sparked my interest in conducting research and continuing to study political science at the graduate level,” they said. “[It was] definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had at URI.”