This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar new to Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Blacksburg Virginia, which is a small college town in the southwest part of the state. It’s a little bit of an odd place to grow up and become an urban economist because there were only 15,000 people in my hometown.
Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?
I was inspired to become a scholar by two things. One was finding ideas and topic areas that I’m really passionate about and I want to study. The other was having great mentors all the way through my career. If you want to be a researcher you need to find questions you really care about. Research can be a little bit of a solitary exercise. You spend a lot of time by yourself with your data and your computer.
I took a class in graduate school where I learned about a core theory of urban economics called the monocentric city model that explains how land values vary within cities. And to me, this was like the light on the road to Damascus—the model explains why cities exist and where people build and where we have tall buildings versus short buildings. I found this so exciting that I thought, I want to spend the rest of my life studying spatial patterns of cities.
It was also really helpful to have great mentors and teachers at every stage of my career, from my undergraduate thesis adviser through jobs and graduate school. Research is a craft that you learn as an apprenticeship, working with a senior scholar who teaches you how to do research, how to break down the process, how to work through a topic. It’s a one-on-one learning experience. Having the right person to guide, encourage, and support you the whole way is really important.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue we’re facing today?
The most important issue that we’re facing is the increasing barriers to economic opportunity for lots of American families. We know, for instance, that the ZIP code that you’re born in and grow up in is very predictive of things like how much schooling you get and your future career and income, even things like your health condition and your life expectancy. That’s antithetical to the American Dream—the idea that a kid born anywhere in the country can grow up to be anything she wants to be.
Americans have become less geographically mobile over time. People are less likely to move from ZIP codes that are poor, that don’t have a lot of jobs or resources, but they’re less likely to move to communities where they have better opportunities and can build better lives.
One of the reasons behind this is housing costs. If you live in someplace like Detroit, Michigan, or Odessa, Texas, it’s very hard to pick up and move to a place like Washington, D.C., or the Bay Area in California. Because housing is so much more expensive, people in some sense are getting locked out of the high opportunity cities and locked into places where they will have worse outcomes on number of measures.
Q: What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m trying to understand how to make housing markets work better for middle income families. So we think about tiers of people—low income families get some subsidies and support from the federal government, although generally not that much. High income families are doing pretty well. But middle income families really don’t have a lot of policies that help them. And there are a couple of different ways in which housing markets aren’t working that well for middle income families. In places like D.C., the Bay Area, and New York, housing has gotten so expensive that even somebody in the middle of the income distribution has a very hard time buying a house, paying the rent, living in a neighborhood that has good schools, and access to jobs and transportation.
In other parts of the country housing affordability is not the main problem for middle income families. The problem is that housing values haven’t risen over time. If you bought a house someplace like Flint, Michigan, or Detroit over 30 years ago, you may have paid off the mortgage, but you haven’t actually built any wealth. And so when those families get to retirement they don’t have enough savings accumulated. Our policies encourage people mostly to save through homeownership, which doesn’t work everywhere in the country.
Q: If you could recommend any book to our listeners, what would it be?
One of my favorite books that explains how cities work is called Crabgrass Frontier. It’s by a historian named Kenneth Jackson. And it’s a great way to understand how cities have changed over time, and some of the ways in which they haven’t changed. So, for instance, people tend to think that suburbanization—people moving out to get bigger houses and more space—is a post-World War II phenomenon. But if you read the history this goes back actually several thousand years: as people have more money they always want bigger houses and more space and more privacy. And so the process of moving out and consuming more housing is a very old one.