As one of the defining global challenges of the 21st century, inequality is prompting scholars to re-think decades-long consensus around issues of economic opportunity and place. In his University of Wisconsin-Madison course Urban and Regional Economics, Jaime Luque, a 2017 Ideas Worth Teaching Award Winner, challenges students to bring rigorous macroeconomic perspective to addressing homelessness without ever losing sight of the individual humanity of those struggling to pay rent.
You are a European who taught a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that was profoundly rooted in a sense of place and local community (engagement with community stakeholders in Dane County especially stand out). What experiences and ideas lead you on that journey?
When I arrived to Madison for the first time in 2012, I was profoundly shocked by the amount of homeless people on the streets. I learned that there are about 3,000 homeless out of a total population of about 250,000 people. Of these, 1,000 are children. By contrast, in my hometown in Spain, Madrid, there are 2,000 homeless out of a 3.1 million population.
A significant fraction of the workforce struggles to pay rents. Because housing is an important part of my course “Regional and Urban Economics”, I decided to create a module on “Housing Affordability and Homelessness”.
The first five sessions are all about the subprime mortgage crisis followed by 5 sessions on applied urban economics. Midway through, the course seems to pivot on a reading of the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and the subsequent sessions focus on guest speakers. Can you talk more about why you structured the course this way, and how it relates to the affordable housing project?
In the first weeks, I exposed students to different important topics in urban economics. At some point, we transitioned to the module on “Housing Affordability and Homelessness”. My goal for this module was to incorporate a hands-on, real-world learning opportunity for my students to grapple with the housing affordability problem. I exposed students to community stakeholders including nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, law enforcement officials, real estate professionals, and homeless individuals themselves to better understand the lack of affordable housing in Madison and its environs. Students also read Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. After some reflection, students started to work in teams on hypothetical real estate development projects on specific sites. These sites were facilitated by Dane County, as part of a collaboration project called UniverCity. At the end of the semester, students pitched their findings and potential solutions to developers and real estate professionals in a public forum hosted by the Wisconsin School of Business called “The Big Event on Homelessness and Affordable Housing.”
What kind of students tend to take this course, and what student reactions to the course stand out to you?
Most students in “Regional and Urban Economics” are second and third-year undergraduate business students. This course is required for real estate majors. About 50 per cent of the class are students from other majors, such as Economics, Finance and Urban Planning.
Students in general like this course and become very engaged with the module on affordable housing. I believe this module is an eyes opening experience because students are exposed to the harsh reality of the most vulnerable part of our society. Even those students that were not enthusiastic to learn about affordable housing at the beginning of the semester, I noticed how the subject matter became increasingly more appealing to them as the course went on. By the end of the course students appreciated having a better understanding as to why so many developers have created niche companies dedicated to low-income housing. Students expressed their satisfaction about the valuable insight gained into how affordable housing projects are established.
One of the details of the syllabus that jumps out is the encouragement to students to join the UW-Madison Real Estate Club. What do you see as beneficial outcomes of this?
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Real Estate Club is a milestone that began in the late 1970’s and has grown to be one of the largest student-run organizations on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It is open to both graduate and undergraduate students. I highly recommend students being active members of this club because it provides them a unique opportunity to meet distinguished real estate professionals and practitioners. Guest lectures include topics such as debt markets, development, REITs, green building, institutional trends, and affordable housing. The Real Estate Club also takes students to field trips, which are a great opportunity for students to visit key developments, meet with professionals, and join networking dinners.