Urban Institute — Countercyclical State Funding Mechanisms

Grant investigator: Alexander Berger

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. The Urban Institute staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $50,000 to the Urban Institute to support a report on implementing countercyclical state funding mechanisms as a means to support states and localities in managing the effects of economic shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

This falls within our focus area of macroeconomic stabilization policy.

Urban Institute — History of Philanthropy Project

Grant investigators: Luke Muehlhauser and Alexander Berger.

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigators. Urban Institute staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $165,833 to the Urban Institute to support a series of literature reviews and case studies on the history of philanthropy. The work will be led primarily by Benjamin Soskis, a research associate at the Urban Institute, who has previously produced case studies for our history of philanthropy project. The Urban Institute plans to publish approximately 6-8 literature reviews and case studies, and we may summarize some of these on our blog. We’re hoping that the Urban Institute is eventually able to scalably produce informative historical case studies about the impact of philanthropy with limited input from us.

This is a discretionary grant.

Urban Institute — Land Use Convening


Urban Institute staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $97,865 to the Urban Institute to support its work on housing supply constraints in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

The Urban Institute is a think tank based in Washington, D.C. with a focus on poverty and urban issues. As part of our exploration of land use reform (which is a priority cause for us), we started a conversation with the Urban Institute to explore potential projects around easing constraints on the supply of housing.

After discussing several potential projects with Urban Institute staff, we decided to fund a research project and convening aimed at identifying policy changes that would allow more housing supply in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. We see the convening as a way to generate new proposals and potential coalitions that we could perhaps eventually support, and as a relatively low-stakes pilot project that will let us learn more about working with the Urban Institute.

Details follow.

A brief post-grant update is available below.

Rationale for the grant

The cause

As of the time of this writing, we have identified land use reform (in particular, reforms to enable more housing construction in key supply-constrained metropolitan areas) as a priority cause within our work on U.S. policy (more detail here), and as such have prioritized it for possible grantmaking. This space stands out for the paucity of funding and organizations advocating for increased housing supply.1

The organization

The Urban Institute is a Washington, D.C. based think tank founded by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 with a focus on poverty and urban issues.2 Its Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center focuses on housing affordability and quality of life on the local level,3 and has done substantial work on affordable housing for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).4 Our impression is that it is respected by affordable housing advocates, and that the quality of its research is well regarded.

Proposed activities

The Urban Institute plans to conduct research and convene researchers, advocates, and policymakers for a day-long meeting to discuss policy changes that would allow more housing supply in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.5 This discussion would have two main goals:6

  • Identifying policy changes that would permit more supply. In addition to straightforward changes like upzoning, the agenda would include complementary policies such as changes in how development costs are borne, or better community benefit agreements.
  • Identifying political challenges and opportunities as well as key stakeholders likely to engage in policy change.

Before the event, Urban Institute researchers will conduct interviews with relevant parties, building towards a briefing paper that will shape a day-long convening.7 The structure of the convening will be determined based on the results of these exploratory conversations. Urban plans to invite decisionmakers such as county commissioners, city council, and city staff, as well as academics, advocates, and other interested parties such as builders.

After the convening, the Urban Institute plans to revise and eventually publish its briefing paper.8

The Urban Institute’s proposed budget for this project, including preparatory research and follow-up, is $97,865. $71,565 of this is for staff time, split across several people, and $26,300 pays for assorted other costs. We are not sure how the other costs were calculated, but don’t see them as unreasonable.

Case for the grant

One of the main constraints we see ourselves facing in this area is the availability of partners willing and able to effectively conduct projects aiming to lower barriers to new supply, and we see this project as:

  1. A reasonably promising avenue for producing new ideas and initiatives that we might want to support around lowering barriers to housing supply in the D.C. metropolitan area.
  2. A relatively low-stakes pilot project that allows us to learn more about working with the Urban Institute (something we might potentially want to do if this project goes well).

Washington, D.C., where the Urban Institute is based, is one of several major metropolitan areas in the US where land use reform could conceivably provide the greatest benefits,9 and also stands out as a particularly valuable place to work on this issue because of the concentration of media attention there. It is also a metropolitan area the Urban Institute staff knows well and is well-connected in.10

We also see this project as a relatively low-stakes way to explore the potential for further collaboration with the Urban Institute on this issue. A convening is a fairly short, inexpensive project that is comparatively easy to assess. We will likely send a staff member to attend the convening, and we have some existing relationships with individuals and organizations promoting land use reform in the Washington, D.C. area, which we hope will make it easier for us to learn how the convening goes.

Risks and offsetting factors

The main risk we see in supporting this project is that it might be too “academic” – we can easily envision a future in which the convening and associated report effectively identifies the key constraints to housing growth in the D.C. metro area, but does not result in further progress towards reducing the barriers.

We also have some uncertainty around the Urban Institute’s policy priorities with respect to housing, and see some risk that the convening could end up focusing on issues outside of our core priorities.

However, we see these as risks worth running, and we do not anticipate that this grant is likely to cause any harm.

Room for more funding

Our impression is that the Urban Institute would not execute this program without our active interest. We are not aware of other funders interested in funding this kind of program, and the Urban Institute told us that it is not aware of any either.

Plans for learning and follow up

Goals for the grant

We hope that this convening identifies policy changes that would reduce barriers to housing supply growth in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, with feasible coalitions that we could potentially support to enact them.

We also expect that this convening will affect our future focus:

  • If the format of this convening works well, we may explore supporting similar events in other key metropolitan areas.
  • We also see this as an opportunity to test working with the Urban Institute as a partner on this issue. Some of the other projects we discussed with the Urban Institute, such as potentially adding a housing cost module to their “Mapping America’s Future” project, would likely be significantly more expensive and open-ended, so we see this easier-to-evaluate and lower-stakes project as a better place to start. Urban Institute staff told us that they also see this as a way to assess us as a potential partner.

Key questions for follow up

Questions that we hope to eventually try to answer include:

  • How well does the format of a convening work to drive progress on this issue?
    • Does the convening lead to new policy ideas or insights? If so, what?
    • Does the convening generate fundable activities? If so, what?
    • Does the convening lead to political action and ultimately to policy change? If so, what?
    • If it is successful, should we expect this success to be transferable to other key metropolitan areas?
  • Does the Urban Institute’s work on this project continue to align well with our priorities? Do we find it easy to work with and learn from the Urban Institute team?

Follow up expectations

Since the convening is meant, at least partially, to generate information that is useful to us, we expect that an Open Philanthropy Project staff member will participate in it. We will also discuss the convening with other individuals and organizations that work on this issue in the D.C. area to get their perspectives. We expect Urban Institute’s activities related to this grant to be complete within a year,11 and we expect to write up our evaluation of the grant at around that time.

We expect to have a conversation with Urban Institute staff every 3-6 months for the duration of the planned program, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.

We may abandon either or both of these follow-up expectations if land use reform ceases to be a major focus area of ours, or perform more follow-up than planned if the circumstances call for it.

Our process

Our shallow investigation of land use reform identified it as a promising area for US policy advocacy. In private conversations with experts on this issue, the Urban Institute was mentioned as an organization considered credible by housing affordability advocates.

Based on that recommendation, we contacted the Urban Institute and have had several conversations with Urban Institute staff. We worked with them to develop a list of potential projects the Urban Institute could do in this area,12 and then decided to focus our consideration on this project.

August 2016 Update

The convening described above occurred on March 2, 2016, and the final paper from the project was completed in June and is available here. We felt that the convening and research were well-run, but they did not generate proposals for further work that we were immediately interested in supporting. We believe the convening gathered many of the relevant stakeholders and we felt that there were many areas of consensus, but we left it feeling that more explicitly advocacy-oriented activity might be more effective for achieving policy change around housing supply issues in the Washington, D.C. region’s current context. Accordingly, we’re not currently planning to prioritize support for this sort of open-ended research and convening project in other regions.


Erika Poethig, Urban Institute Fellow and Director of Urban Policy Initiatives, email on May 29, 2015 Unpublished
GiveWell, Land Use Reform Source
Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks 2005 Source (archive)
Urban Institute concept note Source
Urban Institute, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center: About Source (archive)
Urban Institute, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center: Projects Source (archive)
Urban Institute, Our History Source (archive)
Urban Institute, Strategies for Increasing Housing Supply in High-Cost Cities: DC Case Study Source (archive)