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The benefits of partnering with local universities

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

By Dr. Shawn Flanigan

Recently, as part of my interdisciplinary freshman Honors course at San Diego State University titled “Housing, Home, and Homeland,” I had my twenty-six students spend several weeks reading and discussing Matthew Desmond’s renowned book Evicted, and then gave them an assignment to code an interview from Access to Opportunity research in San Diego. As a culminating experience, we visited the Monarch School, an innovative K-12 school for homeless youth in downtown San Diego. In addition to the usual services schools offer, the Monarch School provides showers, a clothing bank, extended hours and year-round operations, and other supportive services for children and parents[1].

The Monarch School plays a key role in the San Diego Housing Commission’s Achievement Academy initiative, as it is a gateway to housing assistance. As part of a pilot project, a small group of program participants whose kids regularly attend the school receive housing vouchers that reduce their housing burdens and housing insecurity.  The hope is for benefits to both the children and the program participants themselves.  As part of the Access to Opportunity project, we are tracking families in the Academy that are headed by recently homeless parents to see if these benefits are realized.

Located in San Diego’s downtown East Village neighborhood, the sidewalks near the Monarch School are typically crowded with tent encampments of San Diego’s unsheltered residents. The sidewalks happened to be clear during our visit due to a recent sidewalk-bleaching campaign in response to San Diego’s Hepatitis A outbreak among the homeless population[2].  The East Village neighborhood is an incongruous visual representation of our region’s housing crisis, with homeless individuals’ tents pitched at the foot of towers of condominiums priced at well over a million dollars each.

The students in my class are not particularly interested in economic or social policy. Most will freely admit that they selected my section of a required first-semester Honors seminar solely because the timing fit well with their other courses. They are talented 17- and 18-year-old students, predominantly majoring in engineering and business, with a sprinkling of physical sciences, life sciences, and other majors. The students are mostly from solidly middle class backgrounds, with bright futures ahead, and most admit they have never given much thought to their relative privilege. However, over the past several weeks, these students also have become something new: informed citizens who are passionate supporters of fair housing policy. Working with real research interview data from their own community was key to this transformation. As one student reflects, “(Coding the interview) helped me to understand and connect with her story, her life, and her problems. Reading Evicted, it was easy to think of it almost as a novel, but the interview showed me how the same themes impact a resident of my own community, instead of someone 2,120 miles away.”

The Access to Opportunity Project is based at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and given the geographic proximity to San Diego, it would have been feasible for a team of USC researchers to lead housing research efforts in our community. However, the Access to Opportunity Project is deeply committed to working with local academics at local universities. The story above is just one illustration of the many ripple effects that come from partnering with local universities. Others abound. By partnering with local universities, the research dollars have additional impact beyond the research findings themselves, and these impacts extend to local students, new professionals, other faculty members, and community partnerships. Research funds have the potential to make impacts that extend years beyond the conclusion of the research project itself.

At San Diego State University, the experience I describe with my young freshmen Honors students is only one of many impacts research funding has on students. Access to Opportunity research efforts are supported by talented graduate research assistants, a majority of whom are women, and several of whom are first generation college students and students of color. These students are an asset to the research project, as their backgrounds and language skills often give them a distinct ability to develop rapport with the families we are following. However, the Access to Opportunity project also offers these students unique insight into one of San Diego’s most pressing policy problems: housing insecurity. Access to Opportunity research findings and other housing policy content also have been integrated into public policy courses required of all students in San Diego State University’s Master of Public Administration program, which is San Diego’s largest supplier of MPA graduates and our region’s future government leaders. The impact of recent graduates and new public sector employees carrying a knowledge and understanding of housing insecurity into their families, communities, and workplaces should not be underestimated, as it is a true catalyst for social change.

In addition to building student consciousness and awareness, Access to Opportunity funding at San Diego State University has led to important community partnerships and involvement in crucial policy conversations. Our involvement at agency research sites is the beginning of what I hope to be long-term, fruitful relationships between these community agencies and San Diego State University academic researchers. Based in part on synergies between the Access to Opportunity Project and other faculty efforts in the area of homelessness, at San Diego State University we have created a new faculty working group on homelessness and housing that includes more than a dozen faculty working in fields such as city planning, design and architecture, public administration, public health, and social work. This working group now has a seat at the table in important local policy conversations. Due to my involvement in the Access to Opportunity Project, the University President invited me to attend a meeting of regional stakeholders on homelessness and housing policy in his stead. As a result of this invitation, San Diego State University researchers have had important input in policy conversations on housing insecurity that have included the Mayor, members of City Council, business leaders, other local universities, and major philanthropists. We expect our ability to emphasize the importance of evidence-based policy design and evaluation to have a significant effect on community efforts to address housing and homelessness in our region.

USC researchers can, and do, conduct substantial research in the San Diego region. However, the long-term relationships that can best impact the regional policy environment on housing insecurity can only be developed through the involvement of local universities. With the Access to Opportunity Project’s commitment to local university engagement, we can expect to see these relationships flourish in Portland, San Diego, and Seattle.


[1] Learn more about the Monarch Schools at

[2] See Merrit Kennedy’s September 2017 story “San Diego Washing Streets with Bleach to Combat Hepatitis A Outbreak” from NPR.

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