Inaugural Dunlop Lecture Examines Housing

CEO of the National Association of Home Builders Addresses crowd of 70

Last night, Kent W. Colton, vice president and CEO of the National Association of Home Builders, spoke about the state of housing at the millennium at the inaugural John T. Dunlop Lecture.

Colton told the audience of about 70 that while great strides have been made in providing more Americans with adequate housing, policymakers should not grow complacent with their success.

The lecture, which was held in the Sackler Museum Lecture Hall, was held in honor of Dunlop, who is Lamont University professor, emeritus and former chair of the Department of Economics and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"We must overcome the complacency over success. Housing isn't a top priority," Colton said.

Colton began his address by assessing the state of housing in the last 50 years, since the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, but then discussed areas where policy could be improved.

"[The act's] theme was that every American should have a decent home and a suitable living environment," he said.

Colton said this goal has been achieved, pointing to the fact that the home ownership rate is currently 66.8 percent, up from 55 percent in 1950. He also said that 60 percent of existing houses have been built since 1949 and that only 5 percent of homes were deemed crowded in 1990, compared to 16 percent in 1950.

Housing has figured prominently in the federal budget, according to Colton, who explained that a total of $110 billion will go to support housing in 1999--more than for transportation, agriculture and education.

He also said that due to a stable economy, mortgage rates were below 7 percent in 1998 and led to a strong housing market. 890,000 new homes were sold in 1998.

But Colton quickly pointed out that some issues still need to be addressed. Specifically, he cited the plight of the "housing have-nots" who pay more than 50 percent of their income for "worst case" housing and the problem of sprawl, or increased growth away from urban centers which raises a concern for the environment.

Colton said one of the biggest roadblocks to implementing change in housing policy is the "failure on the part of special interests to come together to achieve common ground."

Colton said he believes solutions to housing problems can only be done on the local level.

"There's never been a house built at the national level. That's why, ultimately, encouragement has to come from the local level," he said.

Colton said policymakers need to look back at the way housing challenges were addressed 50 years ago.

"We need to say we have different challenges and issues...We have the facilities to grapple with these issues and I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be able to do so," he said.

Organizers of the Dunlop lecture from the Joint Center for Housing Studies said they hope the address will become an annual event.

Peter G. Rowe, dean of the Graduate School of Design (GSD), said the goal of the annual lecture is to "increase the visibility of housing at Harvard" and to honor Dunlop who has had "an important role in shaping the Joint Center for Housing Studies."

J. Roger Glunt, chair of the National Housing Endowment, which co-sponsored the event with the GSD, said they were honoring Dunlop who has made "great contributions to American life in the areas of labor, healthcare and housing."

Glunt described Dunlop, who has also served as secretary of labor during the Gerald Ford administration, as a "scholar of the theoretical and practical."

Dunlop spoke briefly on his role in the development of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, from its days as a "wholesaler of research money" for many broad studies to its role as a research center focused on housing.

Colton, who had been a fellow at the Joint Center early in his career, as well as an associate professor at MIT, addressed an audience comprised mostly of members of the Builders Association of Greater Boston, University affiliates, and alums of both the Kennedy School of Government and the GSD.

Colton will join the center in June as a senior scholar.