Garboden named RSF Visiting Scholar

Interview with Dr. Philip Garboden, Russell Sage Visiting Scholar 2022-2023

I’m Phil Garboden. I’m the HCRC Professor of Affordable Housing here at UH Mānoa, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and also UHERO.

Congratulations on the Russell Sage Fellowship! Can you tell us about the fellowship and your plan for the fellowship period?

Sure, sure. So every year the Russell Sage Foundation, which is a large funder of social science research in a lot of disciplines, they bring about 14 scholars to their offices in New York to work on self-directed research projects and the nice thing about the fellowship is that it’s really interdisciplinary, so it’s sociologists, economists, urban planners, psychologists, probably some political scientists as well in there. And the group doesn’t really all work on the same thing or even in the same area but the goal is to really get conversations going between this group of people so that it’s sort of everyone’s thinking out of the box a little bit on their work. So that’s the goal of the visiting scholar program. Specifically, I’m going to be working on finishing up my book manuscript. I have a book a contract with Princeton University Press with my co-author Eva Rosen on a book looking at essentially on landlords: who they are, what role they serve, particularly for higher poverty populations and higher poverty real estate markets. So the book’s called American landlord and we’re going to take that opportunity; We’ll both be in New York doing the fellowship to work on it together.

Why is it important to look into the supply-side of low-end rental markets?

Yeah, so the reason we’re interested in thinking about landlords in particular is that, you know, there’s so many questions in planning and urban social science in general about why certain people live where they do, why do we have racial segregation, why do we have concentration of poverty, when do people move, and how are they making those decisions. And I think the literature has done a good job of really understanding some of the economic pressures how the market shapes where people move. And the literature has done a really deep dive for the last several decades in how do tenants, low-income families, think about moves, think about neighborhoods – how do they make decisions about where to go. There’s a long tradition of that. But there’s a missing piece in that story which is the folks who actually own and manage the rental properties themselves, so landlords, property, managers, investors, and so forth. And certainly, a lot of their behavior is explainable by the market context in which they’re operating and can be reduced to that in very useful ways. But these are also individuals who are making decisions and making complicated decisions that are not always based, at least in terms of their outcomes, on the most sensible financial decision they could be making. So, a lot of what we’re digging into is landlords as a group of people, as a profession. And that ranges, of course, from large property managers who manage 800 unit complexes to small folks called mom-and-pop landlords, folks with one or two rental properties. Maybe they used to live there and moved out and decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t sell at that moment. Maybe it’s one or two properties they bought as investments for the long term. But across that entire spectrum, we’re trying to determine how and why landlords decide to do what they do.

Hawaiʻi has one of the most competitive housing markets in the nation. Could you briefly explain how this research could help us understand the challenges low-income families face in Hawaiʻi?

Absolutely. So, unfortunately, the data collection for the book happened prior to my taking on the position here at Hawaiʻi, so Hawaiʻi isn’t one of our case studies. But I think there’s a lot of questions that I ask every day here in Hawaiʻi that really depend on who owns the rental properties here, how they’re managed, what they’re interested in accomplishing with those properties, why they own them, and so forth. So, a classic example was during the COVID-19 pandemic where we were trying to get rental assistance to tenants and therefore to their landlords to make sure that, despite the eviction moratorium, landlords weren’t falling behind, tenants weren’t falling behind, which of course was just sort of delaying a bad situation. And I think if we had a better understanding of who property owners are here in the state of Hawaiʻi, we could have designed that program to be a lot more efficient and effective, a lot less trial and error. I think what we see right now in the state over the last six months – this is a nationwide phenomenon – is this real spike in home values. So there’s been a spike in rents too but the spike in home values has been pretty much unprecedented anywhere in the country, particularly in Hawaiʻi. So again, the question is how are landlords going to respond to that right? The sensible thing from a dollars and sense is to sell, right? The value of owning a rental property, given what you would sell your property for at this moment, doesn’t seem to make a lot of fiscal sense to keep doing it, but landlords are not a monolith. They’re not always going to respond to that primary signal. They’re going to make decisions in ways that are about who they are, what their goals are. Maybe having the next 20 years of appreciation is something that’s worth to those households. Maybe they have a connection to that place so they don’t want to sell. Maybe they’re forecasting a change in the rental market that would make it more beneficial to hold on to the property. So all of those kinds of questions are really important when we’re trying to develop local housing policy because frankly, there isn’t a lot to go on about how folks are going to make those decisions.

Thank you for the interview and congratulations on the fellowship.

Oh, thank you. I’m excited. Thank you for doing this.