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Deng: Addressing the Global Problem of Housing Affordability

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Lan Deng has been a leading researcher studying one of the most vexing societal problems: the lack of affordable housing and what to do about it. Born in China, Deng, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College, lived through the transformation of China’s housing sector from a state-run to a market-based system. Since coming to the U.S. in 1999 for her doctoral studies, she has dedicated her research to studying these two different systems.

“Affordability has become such a grave concern in many countries across the world,” she says. “Housing is so important for every family. It’s not just a roof over your head. It’s a foundation for everything.”

Deng’s research has examined the strong government role in responding to China’s housing affordability challenge, as well as the use of market-based solutions for affordable housing provisions in the U.S. “I pay a lot of attention to how policies interact with different market environments,” she says, “trying to understand how a program operates in different contexts.” Despite what they were able to accomplish, the two different approaches the U.S. and China have taken face their own constraints, she says. She explains that in China, where the state owns urban land, there’s an incentive to sell the land at high prices in order to fund government spending. But in doing so, that has increased the cost of development, causing housing prices to rise. “Sometimes excessive state participation in the market can cause serious problems,” she says.

Yet, “a market-based solution has its own issues,” she adds. She explains that in the U.S., stagnant income growth coupled with rising housing costs have severely limited what market-based programs could do.

Deng says that planners are action-oriented, and she is interested in identifying solutions to the affordable housing shortage. “In order to do so, we need to understand what is going on with the existing housing system. And then we need to figure out how we can address the problems it has.”

After years of researching this issue, she says that solving the housing crisis in both the U.S. and China comes down to having the political will to directly tackle the causes of the problem: “The resources are so constrained, while the demand for affordable housing keeps rising. Currently it is far less than what is needed to be able to tackle these challenges” at a meaningful level. In the case of China, the key issue is whether the government is willing to lower the land cost, she says. In the U.S., substantial efforts are needed to bridge the gap between hosing cost and household income, she adds.

Since 2010, Deng also has been conducting research in Detroit. She was drawn to the city because of its proximity to Taubman College and the challenges the city faces. In studying Detroit, she learned that locating affordable housing as part of neighborhood revitalization strategy is essential. “They shouldn’t be in an isolated development. They should be in places where there are other redevelopment opportunities,” she says of affordable housing developments. Then, “Not only can these developments can contribute to neighborhood revitalization; when that revitalization is successful, you will have some affordable housing there to prevent displacement.”

In 2020, Deng took on two prominent roles that are testament to the acclaim her work has garnered and the esteem in which she is held by her peers. In July, she became associate director for the University of Michigan’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, one of the most prominent centers in the study of China. She appreciates the opportunity to be part of a team that involves other disciplines like history, art, and humanities in promoting a deeper understanding of China. This also informs her planning research, she says: “History matters. Art matters. The strength of the built environment comes from those.” In April, she became the North American editor for Housing Studies, a leading international journal in the field of housing research. “It gives me an opportunity to work with scholars across the world and learn about interdisciplinary work in the field,” she says.

One of Deng’s current projects explores the role of the real estate development industry in shaping housing production in China. In this work, she has gained valuable insights from alumni who are working in that industry in China. In the future, she hopes to further expand her work of examining housing affordability as a global challenge. She believes her research has helped her become a more effective teacher, since she can provide many examples, both locally and globally, to help students understand the housing system they live in.

Many Taubman College alumni are “making great impact in the world. It makes me proud to work with these young, talented students,” she says. She’s also grateful that the college gives her the support to pursue what she most enjoys. “It’s been a privilege to be able to do research that I'm passionate about and to be able to teach the subjects that I’m passionate about.”

Julie Halpert

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