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Roberto G. Quercia is the Harris Distinguished Professor in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning and the director of the UNC Center for Community Capital.

The Center for Community Capital (CCC) is a non-partisan, multi-disciplinary research center housed within The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is a leading center for research and policy analysis on the power of financial capital to transform households and communities in the United States. The Center’s in-depth analyses help policymakers, advocates and the private sector find sustainable ways to expand economic opportunity to more people, more effectively. CCC is part of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and is a Center for Urban and Regional Studies affiliate.

Below is a transcript of the video: Conversations at Hickerson House: Roberto Quercia and the UNC Center for Community Capital

I’m Roberto Garcia. I’m a professor in City and Regional Planning here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I direct the research center called the UNC Center for Community Capital.

What is the mission of the Center for Community Capital?

The UNC Center for Community Capital is a research center and our goal is to become a leading center for research and policy analysis on the transformative power of capital for both households and communities.

Tell us about some of the important research undertaken at the Center.

The Center works in three broad areas: affordable housing, economic mobility and financial inclusion.

In the area of affordable housing, for example, we have been doing a study for almost 20 years now, funded by the Ford Foundation, looking at the low-income home-ownership lending program. We were able to collect a data set over almost a dozen years that captured the fortunes of low-income families or income borrowers before, during and after the financial crisis, and we published countless articles and a number of books after this work. The idea was that to examine whether lending to low-income people in a responsible way can both be profitable for the lender as well as wealth building for the borrower and the answer is “yes.”

Another example in the affordable housing area is a study we recently did for JPMorgan Chase on the combination of the provision of affordable housing with the provision of financial literacy. We work with three groups – in Chicago, Cleveland and New York, including the New York Housing Authority where families receiving a subsidy were also provided financial education and the hope and the idea is that better informed tenants can become self-sufficient quicker.

In the area of economic mobility, typically we focus on the area of opportunity and trying to understand what makes for better opportunities and lesser opportunities. A good example of that is a project we just finished for the JPMorgan Chase Foundation looking at the opportunity structure in America’s neighborhoods. We created this in two big areas – one was a database that we have, and we can make available for researchers working with us, that collected opportunity indicators in every census tract in the country. So, there are obvious things like school quality and crime and house values and tree canopy and things like that. The idea initially was to develop an index and then we decided that it was better than just having a number was to have a structured database that would provide different indicators that could actually be valued differently in different communities.

The second part of the study was to see whether these indicators we have collected actually represented opportunity from the residents in a community. In consultation with JP Morgan we selected two communities – one in the Mission District in San Francisco and the other one in New Orleans. We brought our numbers and our analysis and shared with the community. In both places it took a while to get access to the community and the right people and the community leaders but once we did that we soon realized that the numbers, the quantitative analyses, only reflected partially how the opportunity structure was perceived, the way it was perceived, at the local level. A good example of this is the presence of a hospital that came out in our data set, but maybe at the local level to get to that hospital they’ve got to take three buses or walk under some dangerous intersection without a traffic light – so it wasn’t easily accessible. So, a lesson of this is, for anybody working on indices and opportunity measures and stuff, it is hugely important to see that community perceived that opportunity structure, not just coming out with some numbers.

Another example in the economic mobility area is student loan research we’ve done. We’ve done plenty of work – we started a few years ago doing work in historically black colleges and universities. Recently we finished a study for UnidosUS, formerly known as La Raza Latino advocacy group, looking at the impact of student debt on Latinos and their opportunity after immigration. We expanded that work recently with a study for the MetLife Foundation looking at other groups and what the impact on these other groups was for student debt.

The final area is financial inclusion. We’ve done work in the past looking at the impact of payday lending, having emergency funds, tax preparations. An area that we are particularly interested in is the financial technology. There is a belief out there that with the right technology, like an app for your phone, you can help low-income families make better financial decisions. So, we did a study looking at what kind of technologies are available out there that show the most promise or not, and so we would like to expand our work in that area going forward.

What is one of the newest research projects the Center has undertaken?

We are at the point where we are starting a research agenda on manufactured housing. As you probably know, manufactured housing is a key component in affordable houses talks in many states, North Carolina included. There is not a lot of research that has been done in this area, especially on the financial side of it. So, we are engaged in a project for Freddie Mac looking at financial issues related to manufactured housing. We would like to expand this area with more work and eventually become a go-to place for people interested in the financial aspect of manufactured housing from a consumer and lending perspective.

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