Professor Michael Lens Receives Awards in Two Paper Competitions

By Adeney Zo, UCLA Luskin Student Writer

Urban Planning professor Michael Lens recently received awards from the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) and Housing Policy Debate for his research in housing policy.

Though Lens was aware that his Housing Policy Debate submission was part of a paper competition, the JAPA award came as a surprise. “I’ve been working on the paper that was eventually accepted for publication by JAPA – going back to my dissertation…I had such an elated feeling that my work had finally paid off,” says Lens. “And with the two awards, it was like I had won the lottery twice in the span of one week.”

Lens’ JAPA submission, selected as one of the journal’s two “Best Papers of 2013,” focuses on the relationship between crime and subsidized housing in New York City. Though the crime rate in the city has decreased over the years, Lens found that the cause could not be directly attributed to the city’s substantial investments in subsidized housing. While his findings suggest that subsidized housing neither increases nor decreases crime rates in neighborhoods, Lens still encourages the development of housing subsidies in less distressed neighborhoods, particularly in cities with tight rental markets such as New York and Los Angeles. However, Lens suggests that these cities need to find ways to expand housing options in higher-income, less-distressed neighborhoods, or they risk exacerbating concentrated poverty and further subjecting low-income households to unsafe living environments.

“It is likely that other factors affect crime more than housing investments and that these subsidies were not extensive enough in the typical neighborhood under examination,” explains Lens.

Lens’ winning paper for the Housing Policy Debate competition, titled “Employment Accessibility Among Housing Subsidy Recipients,” analyzes how the location of subsidized housing affects housing recipients’ employment opportunities. Utilizing a new measure for job accessibility that he developed which provides each housing census tract with a spatially-weighted job accessibility index, Lens found that those living in public housing are closer than any other group of housing subsidy recipients to employment opportunities. However, they are also highly concentrated among the low-skilled unemployed individuals that serve as their competition for most jobs.

“Although people think that most of the job growth is happening in the suburbs, there is actually more growth in central cities,” states Lens.

However, many low-income households are now offered housing vouchers instead of public housing, and the location of their preferred housing (in less distressed neighborhoods) tends to take these families farther from employment opportunities.

“From a policy standpoint, I suggest what matters is to ensure subsidized households are not in the worst of both worlds – inaccessible to jobs and located in places highly concentrated with low-skill workers.”

As for the future, Lens will continue researching employment accessibility and housing policy, but he explains that his work in housing subsidies and crime will be laid to rest for the time being.

“For the housing subsidy and crime paper, that was the fourth or fifth paper I’ve done on topic of crime and subsidized housing. The JAPA award is sort of closing the chapter for now,” says Lens. “With employment accessibility, I have a few projects to try and see if access leads to better employment outcomes.”

Lens’ JAPA and Housing Policy Debate papers on crime and housing in New York City can be found here.


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