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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
In many parts of the United States, rising housing prices are making it difficult for ordinary Americans to purchase a home. Government professor Sharon Krefetz and student Helen Williams have been monitoring the impact of laws designed to encourage the development of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people.

Meet the researchers: Labors of love

Interview with Professor Sharon Krefetz
The lack of a sufficient supply of affordable housing is an issue of growing concern to Americans as housing prices have skyrocketed in many parts of the country. Government professor Sharon Krefetz has been studying the politics of efforts to create affordable housing for over 25 years. In a recent interview, summarized below, she discussed how she came to be interested in government policy, her work with Clark's Urban Development and Social Change Program, and her position as head of the Anton and Steinbrecher Fellowship Program.

How did you decide to choose government as your field of study?

When I was completing my first year of college, my older brother asked why, since I was really interested in what was going on in the world, I hadn't taken any political science courses. I said I'd heard that those courses were really hard, that the department faculty rarely gave As, and I wasn't sure I could handle it. But he dared me to try, so I took the introductory course the following semester, and loved it.

I discovered that politics and political science isn't just about government institutions and how they work, it's about people--their values, attitudes, and behavior, how conflicts arise, who does what to try to resolve them, and--most interesting to me--who benefits and who doesn't. And I also learned, which absolutely blew me away, that politics isn't just something that involves the government "out there." Politics happens in all kinds of social settings and institutions.

You realized, as they used to say in the 1960s, that the personal is the political.

Exactly. And politics with a lower-case "p" is just as important and interesting as politics with a capital "p". So that really got me turned on. (And I did get an A in the year-long introductory course. My brother was so pleased with himself!)

I was very fortunate to have wonderful faculty mentors who urged me to go on for a Ph.D., something that was not at all on my radar screen when I entered college. When I said I wanted to be a social worker and help people, a couple of professors pointed out that as an alternative I could study welfare policy making and how people are treated by the welfare system in this country, and then be in a position to make recommendations for improvements. I was told that as a scholar with a Ph.D. I could have a lot more impact than as a social worker who worked with individuals, but wasn't able to effect change in the larger system. So I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. and focused my dissertation on the interaction between city politics and welfare policy making. The next logical topic to investigate was housing and suburban politics, and how that affects the lack of housing opportunities outside the central cities for lower income households in most metropolitan areas.

My professors inspired me to want to get a Ph.D., not only so I could write things that would influence policy makers, but also so I could teach young minds and support and encourage them to do research, to think broadly, and to discover how fascinating and important studying politics really is.

Could you describe how undergraduates have helped you with your research on affordable housing?

Yes. I couldn't have done my research without them, and I acknowledge them in all my work. A very sizeable number of students have worked with me over the years. Starting in the 1970s I usually had one or two students working as my research assistants, helping to track down some of the data on the cases that had been appealed to the State Housing Appeals Committee under Chapter 40B. In the 1980s, when I did my first big survey of local responses to affordable housing proposals, I had several wonderful student assistants who wrote honors theses that carved out particular portions of the larger research that I was doing. One of them did an internship with the head of the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee. Two of them did a paper presentation with me at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, and people couldn't believe that they were undergraduates! More recently, since 1997, when I did another survey, I've had another 8-10 students assist me. Actually I had a whole team of government majors who were helping me track down the surveys that I had sent out to the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, because, as you can imagine, the initial response rate was not wonderful.

Do you have anyone working with you now?

A first-year student helped me last year, and I want to engage her again. She was tracking down data for Rhode Island, where there's been no comprehensive study of the impact of their low and moderate income housing law. This spring, I'm teaching a Housing Policy seminar and I'll offer students the option to do case studies of communities that have very recently either approved or turned down an affordable housing proposal. These case studies would contribute to the next phase of my research in Massachusetts. The students would have an opportunity to talk to local residents and officials about how they viewed the affordable housing proposals and why the proposals were accepted or turned down.

You are director of Clark's concentration in Urban Development and Social Change. Worcester must be a great laboratory for urban study.

In the Urban Development and Social Change Program we are focusing on cities (obviously!), especially on Worcester, because of the University Park Partnership and of Clark's important relationship with our neighborhood.

The research the UDSC summer fellows have done, which has been of remarkably high quality and very ambitious for undergraduates to undertake and complete in the course of just eight weeks, has been noticed by people in Worcester city government and in non-profit organizations trying to revitalize Worcester neighborhoods.

They got some suggestions and feedback from Worcester's City Planner, once he found out we were going to be doing this. He thought it was terrific. It's the kind of information that he and his staff would love to have, but they don't have the resources to collect. The director of the South Worcester Neighborhood Service Center said he'd love to know more about what people in his neighborhood are thinking, and what they feel their most important needs are.

The plan now being drafted by the city planner and the office of neighborhood services has incorporated into it some of the research findings of the UDSC summer fellows. So the students feel, as they rightly should, that their work is being used to help shape plans for improving the South Worcester neighborhood. They've really accomplished something amazing.

Has there been a lot of interest from students in the UDSC program?

Yes, student interest has been just terrific. This program is such a natural fit with the University and the kinds of students we hope to attract. Clark's "challenging convention, changing our world" tagline is something students can actually operationalize if they get involved in the UDSC program. Many UDSC students have interned as part of their courses with city agencies and community development organizations. It's very valuable for them to get that hands on experience. I've had two students over the last two semesters working with Worcester's mayor. He thinks they're terrific and can't believe how valuable the work they do is. Barbara Haller, our District City Councilor, has supervised three Clark UDSC interns over the last two years. They've done so much, and have been so thoroughly professional and mature in taking on their responsibilities. We've just had extraordinary students. We're very lucky.

You also direct the Anton Fellowship Program that provides selected students with stipends to pursue topics of interest.

Yes. The Anton Fellowship program is a labor of love; I learn so much from the students. The UDSC student projects are a treat because they focus on the field in which I live and breathe, so everything they do is of interest to me. The Anton Fellowship students, in contrast, pursue projects in such different areas--the sciences, the humanities, as well as the social sciences--virtually anything and everything.

The Anton Fellows get together at regular intervals to share with each other what they've been learning and doing. And the excitement, enthusiasm and intellectual support these students exude is extraordinary. I sit at their sessions and learn so much. The one thing they have in common is a passion for what they're doing. They're thrilled to be able to have an opportunity to live their creative or intellectual dreams.

 

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