A Passion for Housing

Lynn Ross

Lynn Ross (M.R.P. '01) photo / Mattox Photography

April 10, 2015

A Profile of Lynn Ross (M.R.P. '01) from the Spring 2015 Issue of AAP News

"I am a planner because this is how I feel and think," says Lynn Ross (M.R.P. '01).

If you're a planner, chances are you've been affected by Lynn Ross's work. Her exceptional career — from her post-Cornell work at the American Planning Association (APA) to her position as executive director of the Urban Land Institute's Terwilliger Center for Housing — has covered nearly everything in the planner's toolbox: brownfield redevelopment, zoning, smart growth, and workforce and affordable housing. "Sometimes it feels like an out-of-body experience," she says of her professional ascent.

Now as deputy assistant secretary for policy development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) — HUD's think tank — she's helping to set the tone for the next generation of policy decisions in housing.

Ross, 38, was sworn in last May to oversee PD&R's Office of Policy Development, and its two divisions, Policy Development and Research Utilization. Years of limited resources led to suggestions that HUD's research agenda had become too insular: Ross is part of an infusion of talent helping to bolster HUD's research capacity and furthering the department's mission to gather reliable and objective data — evidence — to help federal agencies, as well as state and local communities, make policy decisions.

Evidence is literally Ross's business; among the host of publications issued by the Office of Policy Development and Research is Evidence Matters, which examines the evidence base for a range of housing and community development issues. A recent issue focused on research to identify the complex physical and socio-environmental factors in housing and neighborhood quality that affect children's well-being.

Ross's own childhood in Joliet, Illinois, played a key role in her decision to become a planner. Watching the blue-collar city dramatically shift from manufacturing to disinvestment inspired her interest in issues related to city planning. It was her first laboratory for imagining better housing. She'd take the Rock Island District rail line into Chicago with her father, an educator with a penchant for urbanism, and ask him about the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the nation's largest housing projects, which ran for two miles along a stretch of highway and rail in Chicago, until its last buildings were taken down in 2007.

"I can remember seeing people in what was very clearly isolated, dilapidated public housing, and I would ask my dad, 'Who lives there? How come it's so separated from everything else? Where do those kids go to school? Where do their parents work? Where is the park?' He would explain to me that these folks live in public housing and this is the housing that's available to them . . . it's what the government provides. I remember many of my early thoughts being that we can — and we should — do better than that."

At her undergraduate orientation at Iowa State University's College of Design, a planning lecturer told Ross and a roomful of aspiring architects and landscape architects what they may be missing out on by overlooking planning. Then, in her sophomore year, she was further inspired to consider a career in planning and had already begun to consider graduate school.

This early immersion in planning is reflected in the broad scope of boards and initiatives Ross is sought out to lead. Before her position at HUD, she served on the editorial advisory board of the journal Housing Policy Debate and the national advisory committee for the new National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, based at the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University.

Ross completed her undergraduate degree in planning at Iowa State and transitioned right into graduate school at Cornell. She then spent five and a half years at the APA in their research department, eventually becoming the manager of their Planning Advisory Service, a subscription service providing customized research and resources. Then, in 2007, she decided to make the leap to Washington, DC, when she got her chance to be director of state and local initiatives at the National Housing Conference (NHC) and Center for Housing Policy, which was a brand-new position for a brand-new program she was asked to build.

"In order to build that program at NHC and the center, I had to get out and meet all the people in the housing and planning space who were working on state and local issues," says Ross. "It really forced me to get out there. This is a happy hour place, and business gets done at happy hour."

Being in the center of the political world brings Ross an important step closer to tackling the affordable housing shortfalls that have been on her mind since childhood. She admits, though, that this is a difficult topic that currently lacks good messaging, particularly in light of recent media upheavals in tight housing markets, like San Francisco and New York City, where a host of creative — and sometimes controversial —  financing and design efforts have put affordable housing in the news.

"Taking away the mechanics of financing, we don't talk about affordable housing and who it serves and that it's beneficial to everyone," says Ross. "Housing affordability is not just about the people at the low end of the scale; this is about people across a range of incomes who need a range of housing, transportation, education, and employment options. And we don't have a terribly good system for getting mixed-income affordable housing built."

According to Ross, the complexities of building affordable housing pop up at every step of the process, including combining the challenges of financing, permitting, rehabilitation codes, holding costs, the underlying zoning and land-use processes, minimum parking requirements, assembling the design team, and even well-intentioned (but sometimes misapplied) goals like green building and energy standards.

"We wrote a whole book about it," says Ross, referencing her work in Bending the Cost Curve: Solutions to Expand the Supply of Affordable Rentals, published in 2014 by the Urban Land Institute in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners. "We argue that you should build those standards into your code with the understanding of the cost implications. Is it more important to have that be mandatory? Or is it more important to have other levers that are going to increase the supply of housing affordability?"

Increasing access to affordable, quality housing is a cornerstone of Ross's efforts. She highlighted the recent work by researchers at HUD to explore housing as a platform to improve quality of life in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation's How Housing Matters research initiative, a five-year, $25-million effort to highlight the effect research-based investments in housing have on social and economic outcomes.

"Housing is an essential platform for achieving positive outcomes in health, neighborhood, well-being, aging, education, and economic success," says Ross. "The body of work that has come out of that [HUD and MacArthur] team is really fantastic; it's really solid, needed work. To actually have an evidence base that says, 'This is what it means for children to have access to stable, affordable housing'  —  that's really powerful."

C. J. Randall (M.R.P. '11)

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