When Molly Metzger was a PhD student, the time came for her to draft research questions for her dissertation. She drew a blank. After three years in classrooms, she felt out of touch with her topic: low-income housing.
“I had to get back into the field,” says Metzger, who had worked previously as a social services coordinator in low-income housing. A mentor at Northwestern University urged her to attend the meetings of a group of public housing tenants, organizers and allies who met in a storefront-church basement. The mission: to protect the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a historic public housing community on Chicago’s North Side.
Metzger listened to residents’ stories about the pressure they felt to leave Lathrop Homes, which was slated for redevelopment. “There is so much to learn from the ‘hanging out’ approach and talking to individuals,” she says. Soon she began research on just where people moved with the help of their Section 8 housing vouchers. They rarely remained on the more-advantaged North Side, she learned.
The Section 8 voucher program is the largest housing subsidy for low-income Americans, with more than 2 million households receiving assistance. Metzger wondered if the trend of Section 8 use in Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods reflected a larger trend, and she began a rigorous statistical description of patterns of Section 8 use across the country’s 50 most populous metro areas.
Her analysis suggested, contrary to earlier research, that Section 8 renters were more segregated in poor neighborhoods and more likely to be excluded from white neighborhoods when compared with similar households without Section 8 vouchers.
Questions worth asking
“Community involvement always informs the questions that I think are worth asking,” says Metzger, 36, a Chicago native who moved to St. Louis in 2013 to work at Washington University in St. Louis. Today she is an assistant professor at the Brown School and is the Center for Social Development’s faculty director for Inclusive Housing, an initiative that kicked off this October with a conference that included a portion for the public, “Inclusive Housing: A Public Forum for Policy Action.”
In addition, Metzger sits on the board of the Metro St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council and is a founding member of the Affordable Housing Task Force at St. Louis’ City Garden Montessori School.
In her research, Metzger seeks to understand how housing policies create and reproduce racial segregation and inequality—so she can change the trajectory. She keeps this quote, from the Romania-born American novelist, political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel pinned to a board in her office: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Metzger’s community involvement not only informs the direction of her research, but also her teaching. She calls it “scholarship for social change.” “Our students are so smart and so passionate, and I want to harness that energy and help communities,” she says. She builds relationships and identifies local initiatives with potential, then she identifies tasks for students in parts of St. Louis or St. Louis County.
New laws in St. Louis
In addition to the project on public housing preservation in Chicago and the national analysis of the Section 8 housing voucher program, Metzger is making inroads in local housing policy. This year, two new laws in St. Louis expanded housing options for Section 8 renters. The laws were influenced by Metzger’s research at Washington University. (Her CSD Policy Brief on Section 8 in St. Louis, based on her peer-reviewed research in Housing Policy Debate, can be found here.) She testified in support of the bills at February meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee. The ultimate goal of the laws is to broaden the range of housing opportunities available to Section 8 renters.
Currently Metzger is trying to reform St. Louis nuisance ordinances that ostensibly protect residents’ well-being by threatening property owners with fines and jail time if they don’t get rid of a nuisance on their property. Metzger says such punishments simply encourage landlords to evict tenants. Enforcement “can have detrimental and disproportionate effects on already vulnerable populations,” she writes in a recent CSD Policy Brief. One city nuisance ordinance she finds especially worrisome is based in part on the number of police calls to a property, including calls related to domestic violence. “This ordinance can force survivors of domestic violence to choose between not reporting abuse to avoid homelessness or risking eviction to get the police assistance required to protect their safety,” she writes.
Metzger says one of her tenets is “Be active in your own community. Talk to everyone you can.” Frequently she traverses the St. Louis region to, as she says, “sniff out opportunities where there are ongoing initiatives around place-based community organizing and community engagement.
“Where are we seeing community development with residents at the helm? And is there a place for students to plug in? We’re not trying to create something new or take ownership. We’re trying to help something that already has some momentum, to continue to keep it moving.”