Meet Mary K. Cunningham, vice president of metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, where her research focuses on homelessness, housing, and concentrated poverty as well as efforts to improve family self-sufficiency and overall well-being among low-income families.

Mary Cunningham
Courtesy Urban Institute Mary Cunningham

She shares what she’s working on and gives us a statistic to think about.

How did you get interested in homelessness and housing?

I started my career in Boston as a caseworker for families with housing vouchers. It was my first job out of college, and I knew I wanted to help vulnerable families, so I started with housing. I found myself using data to help decide how best to assist families, but I felt frustrated by how the Housing Choice Voucher program worked. I wanted to focus on the big picture, and that led me to Washington.

What are you working on this year?

So many exciting projects! I’m spending a lot of time exploring how housing matters for outcomes beyond housing. In one project, we are examining if supportive housing helps keep families together and reduces foster-care placements. Another project measures the impact of providing supportive housing to people experiencing chronic homelessness, living with substance use and mental health challenges, and cycling in and out of jail. These evaluations are both randomized controlled trials, so we are producing the strongest evidence to date on these questions.

Share with us a statistic or finding about homelessness that we might have overlooked.

Here’s a striking statistic: About 43% of those using shelters across the United States are black, but black people make up only 13% of the population. Policymakers need to acknowledge this is the result of long-standing housing discrimination and residential segregation baked into our zoning and land-use policies, as well as pervasive inequities in our criminal justice, health care, and education systems.

You recently studied landlord acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers. What did you learn?

When searching for apartments in the private market, it’s difficult for voucher holders to find an affordable unit and a landlord willing to rent to them. Our testers, who called almost 4,000 landlords in five cities and asked Do you accept housing vouchers? faced high rates of rejection. In “opportunity areas”—neighborhoods that provide access to high-quality schools, jobs, and transportation—the shares of landlords saying they didn’t accept vouchers were even higher. The takeaway? Landlords have a lot of power over where voucher holders can live.

How is affordable housing research evolving or changing?

As a field, I hope we are moving away from describing problems and moving toward identifying solutions.

What trend or issue should affordable housing developers be watching?

I find the sweeping land-use and zoning changes the Minneapolis City Council passed encouraging. I’m interested in seeing how housing developers respond to these policies and, more important, how their response affects the supply of affordable housing for those who need it the most.

What was a pivotal moment in your career?

While I’ve spent much of my career at the Urban Institute, I worked for three years at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, launching its Homelessness Research Institute. During that time, I learned so much about how policy is made, what policymakers need to make good decisions, and how to communicate with them. My research at Urban is very much informed by that experience.

What or who inspires you?

I’m inspired when policymakers use research to improve government and, ultimately, people’s lives.

Favorite fictional character and why?

I have a 7-year-old, so my reference point these days is bedtime stories. Rosie Revere, Engineer is pretty awesome. She’s an inventor who sees things differently and learns there’s an upside to being creative, taking big risks, and learning from failure. I often have to remind myself, not just my daughter, of this lesson.

What’s next for Mary Cunningham?

Digging into homelessness prevention and market-oriented approaches to creating more affordable housing.