PhD grads contribute to scholarly discourse on critical social issues – from housing and displacement, to commerce and climate change
By Matthew Kredell
Less than a month after the USC Price School of Public Policy’s doctoral hooding ceremony at graduation, students Seva Rodnyansky and Johanna Thunell were on stage presenting part of their dissertation research at the 29th annual USC-SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) Demographic Workshop. They fit right in with the distinguished professors, demographers, research analysts and urban planners who participated in the conference, adding novel insights into the effects of policy and planning on population behavior.
“The Price School is good about getting people in front of a group both for practice and also to convey knowledge and methods,” Rodnyansky said. “I was also able to present at an Urban Growth Seminar in April,” an event series that brings top practitioners and researchers to discuss innovative responses to complex urban issues.
Rodnyansky and Thunell were among the Price School’s distinguished class of PhD graduates in 2018, who – through their academic work in the Public Policy and Management (PPM) or Urban Planning and Development (UPD) PhD programs – found their own way to add to the discourse on many of the pressing issues facing the region, state, country and world. All of whom are now applying their knowledge as newly appointed faculty and researchers at institutions across the globe.
Anthony Orlando (PPM): Closing information gaps behind the housing bubble
Hoping to better understand the housing bubble that led to the financial crisis a decade ago, Anthony Orlando sought to fill gaps in our understanding of real estate markets with his dissertation, “Risks, Returns, and Regulations in Real Estate Markets.”
The dissertation explores where housing is being built, how to predict construction activity with early development indicators; what is holding it back in tight markets; how local regulations drive the choice of where to build; and how different homes across the distributions are affected by economic factors.
As urban populations and housing prices continue to grow, the study’s findings can be used to forecast cyclical risk, target monetary and credit market policies to the appropriate households, and achieve a more productive balance of construction activity across the urban landscape.
“Anthony’s dissertation seeks to plug holes that have long existed in economics and public policy research,” said dissertation chair Raphael Bostic, who is now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “I’m particularly drawn to his work looking at the differential effects that policies have on distinct slices of the population. These hold the promise of changing how we debate issues and search for appropriate policy solutions.”
Through his research, Orlando hopes the resulting policy implications can help to avoid a recurrence of the Great Recession and put homebuilding on a more sustainable footing as people move back to cities in an urban renaissance.
He gives credit to USC Price professors, including Bostic, and classmates for helping to shape his dissertation.
“Every chapter of my dissertation came out of conversations with professors and classmates at Price. Before coming to Price, I never thought to predict the economy using housing production timelines or to estimate the effect of monetary policy on houses that start at different prices across the economy or to measure how housing supply reacts to demand shocks in different parts of the metropolitan area,” said Orlando, who worked as a journalist, teacher and film producer before pursuing his PhD at Price.
Now Orlando is a professor ready to influence and inspire the work of future scholars and practitioners. He accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Finance, Real Estate and Law at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona.
Matthew Miller (UPD): Mapping the ‘Geography of Black Commerce and Culture’
Living in Los Angeles, Matthew Miller was exposed to artists and activists leading economic boycotts as a response to police shootings. Activists called for consumers to “Buy Black,” but the list of black businesses they supplied was small and inconsistent.
Miller based his dissertation – “The Geography of Black Commerce and Culture: Los Angeles and Beyond” – on mapping the spatial practices of black business owners, particularly in cultural industries that he dubbed the “black creative class.”
“Rather than blame the business owners, this made me ask about where, how and why certain places are more supportive ecosystems for black creativity, commerce and culture than others,” Miller said.
Miller sought to answer where black-owned businesses locate and cluster in California, how the black creative class claims and makes places, and how the black creative class engages with planning and urban design through creative placemaking. Through mixed methods research, he presented his findings in three parts: foundations, flows and futures.
At the center of his research was a case study of Leimert Park Village, a historic artistic-merchant community in South Los Angeles. Over 15 years, that merchant community self-organized a property-owner run, nonprofit-managed business improvement district, which it uses to infuse African-American and artistic identity in the Village’s landscape.
Miller identified four social mechanisms motivating black agglomeration at Leimert Park Village: 1) refuge from racism, 2) congregation over segregation, 3) countering desertification, and 4) preserving legacies. However, he also revealed five areas of dis-belonging threatening their model of placemaking: 1) socio-spatial stratification, 2) aversion to commercialization and branding, 3) food and retail desertification, 4) civil unrest, and 5) intergenerational lack of access to debt financing.
“Matthew’s dissertation was ambitious, combining spatial statistics of business data, ethnography and photo documentary, all undergirded by a deep commitment to his project site,” said Associate Professor Annette Kim, who oversaw Miller as director of USC Price’s Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB).
“The committee was particularly and delightfully surprised to see the high quality of his photo portraits of the people and places of Leimert Park, which is uncommon for planning dissertations,” added Kim, who served on his dissertation committee, which was chaired by Professor Lisa Schweitzer. “It’s the kind of dissertation that I see as pushing the frontiers of planning, integrating the social sciences and the humanities.”
Miller, who was a student of Kim’s while pursuing his master’s degree at MIT, helped her begin SLAB at USC Price and also assisted her in teaching a class on race, arts and placemaking.
“SLAB was very influential because it helped me see black businesses as social, not just economic, spaces in the city,” Miller said. “SLAB helped me honor their humanity in all the forms it shows us: in their colorful, hand-painted signs, in their names, in their street life, in their oral histories, in their property values.”
Miller is currently a postdoctoral fellow in academic diversity at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
Bingbing Wang (UPD): How does homeownership affect your work choices?
Bingbing Wang’s dissertation, titled “The Interactions Between Housing and Business,” examines whether home-owning hurts employment and identifies the home-owning factors affecting homeowners’ job outcomes. It also studies whether homeownership rates affect business development nearby. Finally, it measures the effect of the proximity to retail projects on property values.
“I am interested in how home-owning affects individuals’ behaviors and how these behaviors – such as working incentives, moving and job change considerations, and attitudes toward the business nearby – could reflect themselves in the aggregate measure of employment, mobility and business development,” Wang said.
Her research will impact how people manage housing and business development.
“We had a lot of hypotheses that people under water in the housing market were constrained from moving to places with job opportunities. Her work proved that’s not true,” said Price Professor and USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Director Richard Green, Wang’s dissertation chair. “She found that people who become homeowners are people who already decided to settle down, so they were less mobile to begin with.”
Wang was a co-author with Green on a working paper for the Lusk Center titled “Housing Tenure and Unemployment.”
She is now an assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles.
Johanna Thunell (PPM): Examining the impact of work-leave policies on families
As a mother who went back to school to pursue graduate studies when her child was five years old, Johanna Thunell had seen how many workplaces aren’t structured around having kids. In her dissertation, she sought to address the effects on individuals and families of public paid leave policies.
“I’ve always been interested in work-life balance and gender-equity issues,” Thunell said. “Ever since I graduated college at 22, I wondered how people work in these workplaces that are super demanding and have families and do everything needed for their families.’
Her dissertation – titled “The Role of Public Policy in the Decisions of Parents and Caregivers: An Examination of Work, Fertility, and Informal Caregiving” – features three parts, which are each distinct but related papers on the effect of paid family leave on fertility, children with special needs, and caregivers to elderly parents with dementia.
Her paper won the 2018 USC Henry Reining, Jr. Award for the best dissertation written in the Public Policy and Management program.
“It was a difficult choice going back to school at 34 years old with a five-year-old child,” Thunell said. “At first, I felt completely overwhelmed. Receiving the dissertation award feels like confirmation that I made the right choice in sacrificing a lot for a long time.”
With total fertility rate at its lowest rate since 1978, and below what is called ‘replacement’ – the level of births needed for a generation to replicate its population count – Thunell analyzed public leave policies that have had a positive effect on birthrates in California. For mothers caring for a child with a disability, Thunell found that California’s Paid Family Leave law increased labor-force participation by 9 percent while boosted labor supply among fathers.
“Johanna’s research addresses issues at the top of the national agenda, asks new and key questions to inform policy, and answers them by bringing together theoretical insights from two complementary disciplines and by utilizing the best available data sources and rigorous econometric techniques,” said USC Price Vice Dean Julie Zissimopoulos, Thunell’s dissertation chair. “The findings will be of great interest to researchers in the field as well as policymakers.”
Thunell is working with Zissimopoulos as a postdoctoral fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, where her research will focus on gender and racial disparities in health among family caregivers for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Seva Rodnyansky (UPD): Is LA’s rail expansion leading to displacement?
In his dissertation titled “Household Mobility and Neighborhood Impacts,” Seva Rodnyansky sought to determine if people are being displaced by new rail station openings in the Los Angeles region.
“I had always been interested in neighborhood change, gentrification and displacement,” Rodnyansky said. “In the U.S., it’s very hard to determine who moves and where because people like to keep their information private.”
With the help of his dissertation advisors, Marlon Boarnet and Raphael Bostic, Rodnyansky was able to partner with the California Franchise Tax Board to use tax filing data for L.A. County to get a unique household-level view on the issue of neighborhood displacement.
“This is really the first time that anyone has had data that can track moves in and out on a year-to-year basis,” said Boarnet, professor and chair of Price’s Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis. “To also sort these by income level is really a big step forward.”
Rodnyansky expected to find that improving a neighborhood by giving it transportation access might increase amenities, spurring gentrification and causing displacement. He found that move rates for all incomes do go up by 3 to 7 percent, but that there is surprisingly no increase for the lowest-income households.
“That was my incoming hypothesis, but I didn’t find that as much as I expected, and that was a major surprise,” Rodnyansky said.
Rodnyansky’s research showed that other factors such as having a child, getting married or a change in income had a larger impact on decisions to move than the rail station. The people who did leave also didn’t go far, with nearly 40 percent moving less than two miles and another 15 to 20 percent less than five miles.
“Living near transit at some point is very predictive of living near transit again, whether near the L.A. metro line or fast bus or a transit priority area,” Rodyansky said.
Rodnyansky began a postdoctoral fellowship with the University of California-Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans, where he is continuing his research into household mobility and demographics by looking at the intersection of how often people move, their age and political participation in terms of voter registration and turnout. His theory is that one reason younger people vote less might be that they move around more.
Bo Wen (PPM): Exploring ‘causes and consequences’ of China’s economic growth
China has experienced tremendous economic growth over the past three decades. In his time studying at the Price School, Bo Wen, an international student from China, noticed that Western scholars believed that, to have such enormous growth, China must have resorted to atypical paths of wealth accumulation and economic revitalization.
His dissertation – titled “Three Essays on the Causes and Consequences of China’s Governance Reforms” – dissects the factors behind, and effects of, China’s governance reforms. Its three core chapters describe and reflect on the paradigmatic shift in China’s fiscal, civil service and environmental management regimes.
“I believe the contributions made by my dissertation are twofold,” Wen said. “First, it descriptively shows the resolve of the Chinese top leadership in breaking the dogged status quo in governance. At the same time, it unveils the multifaceted, personnel-based ramifications that various top-down government measures might trigger. Laying bare these reform-related conundrums, in theory, could keep central policymakers informed, engender their greater responsiveness to the wellness of public employees at the bottom of the party-state power structure, and ultimately help sustain China’s political and economic stability.”
What surprised him in the dissertation research, conducted with the guidance of dissertation chair Professor Shui Yan Tang, was that, despite the growth in China’s economy, certain governance issues persist.
“At the state level, the central government still struggles to strike a delicate balance between centralization and decentralization with regard to the distribution of administrative power,” Wen said. “At the local level, centrally promulgated mandates and policies are often weakly, if not ineffectively, implemented, yielding repercussions of various kinds.”
Wen had the opportunity to be the sole instructor for the course Statistics for Policy, Planning, and Development in the fall 2017 semester and contributed to the curriculum with new lecture presentations and problem sets. Additionally, he co-authored with USC Price Professor William Resh a paper titled “The Persistence of Prosocial Work Effort as a Function of Mission Match” that was published in the journal Public Administration Review.
Wen accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the City University of Hong Kong.
“Bo exhibits an ability to incorporate a complex array of disciplinary perspectives in an accessible and insightful manner,” said Resh, who served on his dissertation committee. “His work evidences an exceptional amount of attention to quality and detail – an indispensable trait for any successful academic. I have no doubt that this will carry through to this new chapter in his life.”
Lee White (UPD): Reducing carbon footprints
Reaching the ambitious climate change goals for reducing green-house emissions in California will require the public to embrace new technologies and changes in their lives. Lee White’s dissertation – titled “Carbon Footprints: How to Encourage Adoption of Emissions-Reducing Behaviors and Technologies” – takes a broad look at these technologies and needed behavior changes, examining what predicts whether someone will adopt them.
“I’ve had an interest in climate change-related research for a long time because I see it as something critical for society to address,” White said. “It’s an issue that will only grow worse with time as things currently stand, isn’t reversible once it’s happened, and will hit those who are already in tough positions the hardest. My interest in climate change from a policy and planning perspective grew from a desire to understand what governments could do to remove barriers for people who already wanted to reduce their emissions.”
In the first chapter, White analyzes the role of city governments in facilitating the installation of solar power. The second chapter looks at the factors people consider when purchasing an electric vehicle. She finds that self-identification with environmentalist values is the strongest predictor of intention to purchase an EV. The third chapter provides new knowledge on predictors of residential sector acceptance of time-of-use electricity pricing.
The chapter examining electric cars was published in the peer-reviewed journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, and the chapter examining installation of solar power has been accepted for publication in Energy Policy. White has co-authored seven articles in leading scholarly journals and collaborated on research projects with each of her dissertation faculty members. She contributed significantly to a project directed by dissertation chair Professor Dan Mazmanian on improving the performance of China’s Environmental Protection Ministry. She also served as a graduate student fellow in the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, researching the role of human behavior in energy transition.
“Lee has demonstrated an ability to immerse herself in an important dimension of climate mitigation, adaptation planning and implementation,” Mazmanian said. “The three activities selected for examination in her dissertation were chosen based on their currency in policy efforts and their potential to change energy systems synergistically. In each of her three chapters, Lee begins by identifying gaps in existing scholarly and theoretical knowledge, developing a primary data set in one case and creatively utilizing existing data sets in two, which allowed her to address important planning and climate change policy issues.”
White is working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Yusun Cho (PPM): Vital role of nonprofit intermediaries
Inspired by the belief that organizations promoting successful collaborations between nonprofits and philanthropic individuals are key to addressing the world’s social issues, Yusun Cho’s dissertation – titled, “The Functions of the Middleman: How Intermediary Nonprofit Organizations Support the Sector and Society” – focused on the role of intermediary organizations in the nonprofit sector.
“As our society becomes more complex, it is important for public and nonprofit organizations to effectively address intense social, political and economic problems,” Cho said. “In my undergraduate and master’s programs, I learned that collaboration and networks between public and nonprofit organizations are a significant factor in solving these problems in an effective and efficient manner.”
She completed three empirical studies addressing theoretical issues pertaining to three different types of nonprofit intermediaries.
The first study focused on management support organizations that work to improve the managerial capacity of nonprofits. She concluded that competition driven by a growing number of these organizations has led to more of them becoming specialists in a specific service area.
The second study compared government and nonprofit organizations that coordinate local policy implementation networks that provide services for a federal job assistance program. That study found that nonprofit coordinators are effective in increasing employment, but not so much in growing earnings for service recipients.
The third study examined advocacy organizations that use social media to mobilize civic engagement on political issues. She found that the effectiveness of social media usage varies by advocacy area, with information about more general issues diffusing more broadly and information about special interests being shared more narrowly among those interested in those particular issues.
For each study, she made creative use of available data to develop measures that allowed her to test her hypotheses and answer her research questions.
“Her three studies together make an important contribution to the nonprofit management literature, since nonprofit intermediaries have received little empirical attention to date,” said Associate Professor Peter Robertson, her dissertation chair. “By drawing attention to these organizations and empirically investigating a variety of theoretical issues pertinent to these types of intermediaries, she has effectively positioned herself and others to continue to investigate the role of these organizations in the development of the nonprofit sector.”
Cho has returned home to South Korea and is now a research professor at Korea University’s Institute of Governance Design.
Quan (Jack) Yuan (UPD): LA warehouses are disproportionately concentrated in minority communities
Working at the METRANS Transportation Center on a series of urban freight research with director and Price Professor Genevieve Giuliano, Quan (Jack) Yuan observed a massive expansion of warehousing facilities in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles.
He decided to focus his dissertation, titled “Location of Warehouses and Environmental Justice,” on examining the environmental and social implications of such expansion.
“Jack is my second student to write a PhD dissertation on urban freight, a topic that is just beginning to be recognized in urban planning,” said Giuliano, who also served as his dissertation chair. “Contrary to passenger transportation, there is little in the way of literature or theories to guide the research. It takes courage, creativity and ambition to write a dissertation on urban freight.”
The first of his three essays finds that warehousing is disproportionately located in both low-income and medium-income minority neighborhoods. Additionally, warehousing is not located near medium-income non-minority neighborhoods.
The second essay dives deeper into that result, analyzing if warehouses are locating near minorities or if minorities are locating near warehouses. Using a simultaneous equations model, he finds that warehouses are more likely to locate near pre-existing minority neighborhoods.
The third essay is a series of case studies to understand how warehouse and distribution clusters emerge in some cities but not in others. He found no deliberate policies that would suggest environmental injustice. Instead, historical development, land availability and city development policies were key factors.
“The environmental inequity in warehousing location is proven to be significant, regardless of urban contexts,” Yuan said. “However, the fieldwork and interviews in my dissertation show that the public sector had paid little attention to it. I hope my work can help the minority population better protect themselves from the environmental externalities of warehousing facilities.”
Yuan had the opportunity to present part of his dissertation research at the METRANS International Urban Freight Conference in October of 2017. He also received a Study Visit Grant from the Volvo Research & Educational Foundations to spend a month conducting urban freight research in Gothenburg, Sweden.
He will spend the next year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working with Professor Noreen McDonald.
Danielle Williams (PPM): Evaluating programs to help at-risk groups
Danielle Williams’ dissertation, “Innovation and Good Intentions: Evaluations of Three Programs for At-Risk Populations in Southern California,” consists of three papers — each of which examines an innovative program intended to assist an at-risk population.
The first paper looks at a museum-based education program for low-income public school students and its impact on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes in both the short- and long-term. The second paper studies the relationship between student participation in a public high school club for adolescents who have experienced familial incarceration. The final paper departs from quantitative program evaluations to analyze the cross-sectoral collaboration between a housing authority and nonprofits conducting a housing pilot program for recently released formerly incarcerated individuals.
“By studying these programs, I aim not only to examine the effectiveness of specific programs in aiding these populations, but also to contribute to the literature on how best to creatively leverage existing resources on behalf of groups who face deeply entrenched disadvantages,” Williams said.
The papers are thematically linked by their examination of innovative efforts to address challenges faced by severely disadvantaged populations.
“My time at Price led me to frame my research in a way that makes it more broadly applicable to solving different types of social problems, rather than simply the particular issue that the program addresses,” Williams said.
Williams plans to defend her dissertation in early 2019. While she completes her dissertation, Williams began working for the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice-oriented think tank, as a research consultant in July. She is assisting with their evaluation of select California-based programs that provide supportive services to formerly incarcerated individuals who are attending college.