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Agenda for Social Justice: Solutions 2012

The Society for the Study of Social Problems has released its Agenda for Social Justice: Solutions 2012, a publication designed to inform policy makers and the public-at-large about some of the nation’s most pressing social problems and to propose policy responses to those problems. It is an effort by SSSP to nourish a more public sociology that will be easily accessible to policy makers.  The publication features entries from two of our Sociology PhD program’s students – Katie Kerstetter and Jason Smith – as well as one of its MA alumni – John Robinson.

“Preserving Affordable Housing and Building Wealth in an Economic Recovery: Limited Equity Cooperatives as an Alternative to Tenant Displacement.”
John N. Robinson III and Katie Kerstetter

“Promoting Digital Equality: The Internet as a Public Good and Commons.”
Jason Smith, Preston Rhea, and Sascha Meinrath

The publication can be found here.

Academia ‘and’ Policy?

By John N. Robinson III

Nothing better illustrates the usefulness of public sociology as a venue for civic engagement than to reflect on the awkward relationship that exists between sociology and policy. On the one hand, they seem superficially adjacent, as if sibling disciplines. For example, it is not uncommon for a sociologist to profess the “policy-relevance” of his or her own work. In fact, “policy-relevance” is generally the most basic and intuitive way to imagine our work as important at all. Likewise, subfields such as the study of the welfare state or urban poverty treat policy as a central object of analysis, thereby further blurring disciplinary boundaries that already seem porous and vaguely defined.

However, scholars who overstep rather than merely straddle the line between sociology and policy find that the distance between the two is deceptively vast. My coauthor (Katie Kerstetter) and I learned this lesson in vivid detail as we set out to prepare for George Mason University’s Public Sociology Graduate Conference last fall semester a presentation based on a policy paper that we would soon submit to an edited collection entitled, Agenda for Social Justice. Trained as a sociologist, the conventions of policy paper writing initially had me feverishly scratching my head. Just imagine my bewilderment in being told to limit our contribution to 10 pages or less, to refrain from citing the source of every assertion we made, and (my favorite) to “minimize the jargon.” Trained in the public policy world, Katie felt more comfortable excising jargon and developing arguments via bullet points but experienced a similar sense of bewilderment when it came time to add “Theory” to our policy argument.

While the conventions of policy paper writing took some getting used to, our greatest challenge still lay before us: transforming such a paper into a presentation of interest to an academic audience. This is not to say that we were ultimately successful in doing so but in either case I can report some insights.

  • First, academic and policy outlets seem to be interested in different aspects of the problems we study. This is how a policy paper about limited equity cooperatives as an underutilized policy instrument became an academic presentation about limited equity cooperatives as an example of organizational nonconformity. Both are important potential contributions but the former tries to fill a practical gap and the latter a conceptual one. But situating such a project in an academic literature, as we must do if we intend to publish in academic outlets, threatens to abstract the discussion from the more pragmatic concerns of the policy world.
  • This leads into a second insight: the answers we as academics give to theoretical puzzles tend to raise still more questions, while the answers we give to policy questions are expected to settle them. For example, in our policy paper we explicitly advocate in favor of one policy instrument over another, a move less likely to win success in purely academic outlets. Naturally, some of the toughest questions we received when fielding questions concerned the challenge of conveying to our audience a sense of balance in our consideration of various policy instruments.
  • Finally, we found that it was helpful to actually inform our audience beforehand that our project was one of translating between academic and policy worlds, thereby inviting them to participate in this messy process. We decided to do this as a strategy of making our presentation more intelligible, but the results exceeded our greatest expectations, as the audience asked great questions and took seriously the challenge of producing knowledge of interest to academic and policy audiences.

Unfortunately, such opportunities for fruitful dialogue appear to be rare. Most often, it seems that scholars have to choose: academia or policy? This is why venues like GMU’s burgeoning public sociology graduate conferences are so invaluable. It is true that the process of developing our presentation became for us an occasion to reflect on how the policy and academia worlds seemed so starkly dissimilar. The presentation itself, however—and our engagement with co-presenters and the audience afterward—reminded us of what can happen when so many brilliant minds are brought together toward a worthy cause. When a conference can do this it creates borderlands, full of productive exchange, where once there were only boundaries. For these reasons, I would like to sincerely thank the organizers of GMU’s public sociology conference for a job very well done.

John N Robinson is in the Sociology PhD program at Northwestern University. His research interests gravitate around the areas of urban sociology, law, and social policy. In his current project he studies tenant legal campaigns against public housing demolition and redevelopment in the wake of the HOPE VI policy in particular and welfare state decline more generally.

Priced out of Public Housing

By Johanna Bockman

When you take the 6th St SE exit off of the 295 freeway, you can see the new senior public housing building on the right-hand side of the street (photo on left). At the stop light there, if you look back to the right, you can see a large expanse of new townhouses (photo on right). This area south of the 295 to M St and between 2nd and 7th St SE was the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing developments. These two developments housed 707 low-income and very-low-income families and seniors. A very interesting fact is that today HUD considers households making up to $82,000 in DC to be low-income because they are increasingly priced out of DC.

With HOPE VI funding, both developments were demolished and redeveloped as a public-private mixed-income project. HOPE VI funding requires the DC Housing Authority to replace each unit of public housing, all 707 units, and thus not eliminate public housing from the site. The new development has many new townhouses. When completed, there will be 323 units. Using the developer’s site plan, we see many townhouses starting at $662,000 or more, workforce townhouses with subsidized mortgages for those making $82,800-119,025, and affordable apartments (I was told by the developer that these were for those making around $50,000-60,000).

From the very helpful DCHA, I found out that 339 “public housing” units have been recreated on the Capper-Carrollsburg site, leaving 368 to be constructed. So, who lives in the 339 units? Those allowed in the units have to make a certain percentage of Area Median Income (AMI), which is $103,500 in DC. HUD considers those with up to 80% AMI ($82,000) to be low-income (though DC has tended to stick closer to the 60% threshold).

162 seniors, in the senior building, who can make 0-60% AMI.

138 individuals/families with a working head of household, in 400 M St., who make 40-60% AMI ($41,400-62,100).

39 individuals or families, in Capitol Quarter, who make 0-30% AMI.

Total: 339 units.

There are very few units for those who make less than $41,000. From the incredibly informative Housing Policy in the United States 2010 textbook, we know that the average nationwide income for those working as elementary school teachers ($49,781), LPN nurses ($38,941), security guards ($29,401), and cashiers ($19,757) would not allow them to buy a house here or elsewhere. Also, we know that the average hourly wage for those working as LPN nurses ($15.72), security guards ($14.13), janitors ($11.57), and cashiers ($9.50) would not allow them to rent an average 2-bedroom apartment here or elsewhere.

Realizing that even the middle class is becoming priced out of DC, the Federal and DC governments began to set aside “workforce” housing. Yet, those with less than $41,000 incomes are in truly dire straits. The ever expanding market of high-end rentals and houses drives the neglect of middle- and low-income housing demand. Nationwide, the number of public housing units has decreased by 250,000 (18%) from 1991 to 2007 and the number of privately owned federally subsidized units have decreased by over 150,000 since 1997 (Housing Policy, p. 39). According to a 2007 DCHA report, the DC waiting list for public housing has 29,756 individuals/families on it and the DC waiting list for vouchers to rent on the private market has 48,748 individuals/families on it. While there is more and more demand for affordable housing, subsidies are provided to others. Around 7 million low-income renters received federal housing subsidies in 2008. In 2008, 155 million homeowners took mortgage deductions on their federal income taxes. These deductions and other homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion, mostly going to those with incomes over $100,000 (Housing Policy, p. 7). Priced out of public housing in many ways…

The “low-income” category has been defined upward. It is true that the middle-class is being priced out of DC. At the same time, the poor, including the working poor, have been pushed out of such places as Capper-Carrollsburg. Rather than setting up a choice between helping either those making $50,000 or those making $20,000, we should think about how we as taxpayers are helping those who can afford $800,000 townhouses.

Dr. Johanna Bockman is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Affairs at George Mason University and author of Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism (Stanford University Press).  She is the director of undergraduate studies in sociology at George Mason and her research areas involve: globalization, neoliberalism, gentrification, economic sociology, Eastern Europe, Washington DC, socialism and postsocialism.

This article originally appeared on Dr. Bockman’s blog, Sociology in my Neighborhood, on Feb11, 2011