Urban Scholar Highlight: Rachel Fyall

Urban Scholar Highlight: Rachel Fyall

Rachel Fyall is an Assistant Professor in the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, and the Faculty Chair of Urban@UW’s Homelessness Research Initiative. We sat down with her last quarter to discuss her work.

What you do at the UW and what led you to your current research interests?

The main thing I study and teach about is the role and interaction of nonprofits with government, both through advocacy and in public service delivery, primarily in the fields of low-income housing and homelessness. Before getting my Ph.D., I worked locally at the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. That’s where I first got involved in housing and homelessness issues.

How do your current research interests intersect with urban issues?

There are nonprofits in all communities, but there is a concentration of nonprofits in urban areas, due to concentrations of funding, and of people who are interested and want to make an impact. For homelessness as well as other social services, government has a long history of delivering public programs through nonprofits, so it is an interesting research context because we have a lot of public money going to nonprofits to deliver the actual programs.

How has your research in homelessness informed your teaching?

When I teach nonprofit management, I often use homelessness as the example of how the public and nonprofits are working together to try to tackle a very difficult issue. Also, innovation often comes from the nonprofit sector as they try new approaches to alleviate homelessness, and these ideas are sometimes adopted or integrated into broader policy. We saw that with the Housing First strategy, which was really pioneered by nonprofits then shown to be effective, and now it’s pretty standard that governments are supportive of and trying to help expand that strategy in their own programs. Also, I teach policy analysis, and homelessness is a very interesting case to think about what you can do to address problems within the constraints of policy. If you are a city government, there is only so much you can do: you only have so much money, you only have so much control, and yet you want to be able to make a difference. And homelessness is an example where you can find hundreds of meaningful programs that might make a difference, and as a policymaker you have to choose how you are going to use your limited resources and expertise.

How do you think about the use of data or evidence when making policy changes?

I think that statistics as well as qualitative data—getting at the mechanisms underlying programs—are very important to provide feedback to policymakers, nonprofits implementing the programs, and the program participants themselves, to evaluate if this is the right way forward. I absolutely think that data and evaluation are important, because these are public dollars and we want to be as smart as we can when using that money.

Based on your work, what do you believe is the most effective approach to address homelessness in Seattle?

I think we need a lot more housing. From my perspective, homelessness is fundamentally a problem of housing affordability, and while people experiencing homelessness experience a lot of other challenges aside from housing affordability, the lack of housing is the thing that defines them as homeless. And right now, Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in this country and it’s very difficult to build housing at the same rate that people arrive. We need not just more housing, but also a mindful use of policy tools to help match the kind of housing that’s being built with what people need. For example, one-bedroom units won’t really have a meaningful impact on families who are trying to stay together or may otherwise be pushed out of Seattle. We need more housing across the spectrum to make sure that we are not creating a city that only includes certain types of people or households.

What do you see for the future of research and policy-making in homelessness?

We want to believe that we are learning from our experiences and not making the same mistakes over and over, and that we are finding more ways to be innovative and adapt to new challenges. I think we are getting smarter; I think that there has been some really good research recently done on a national scale that is influencing policy conversations. But, because of the quick pace that policy can be passed compared to the slow pace of research, sometimes we move forward with policies that have not been researched fully, and there isn’t really a way around that. I hope there is a dedication to following those policies to make sure we’re learning about them as they are being rolled out, even if we don’t know beforehand how they will work.

What role do partnerships play in adding value to your work?

A lot of the research that I have been involved in has been with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which is one of the largest nonprofit service providers in the city. One of our projects also collaborates with Pathways to Housing, and another researcher from DePaul University, so a really collaborative effort. Another project that we’re working on, with Urban@UW, is a survey of student experiences with housing or food insecurity. For that project, which we are implementing next month, we are connecting with faculty and staff on all 3 UW campuses, looking to see what we can learn in a systematic way about the experiences about housing and food insecurity among our own student body.

If you were to recommend one book to an aspiring urban scholar, what would it be?

Well, if you want to know about housing policy then “Housing Policy in the United States” is the text book I have used in my class. It can be it is a very dense read but the field is extremely complex, and that book is a great introduction for anyone who wants to get in the weeds of housing policy while still understanding the scope. Everything from housing authorities to vouchers to nonprofit subsidized developments, to homelessness programs, to foreclosures, everything, so I have to recommend that book.

I am also excited to read Scott Allard’s book :“Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty,” which explores the suburbanization of poverty, which is very interesting for people in housing and homelessness because of what we know about housing and the city.

Written by Shahd Al Baz, Urban@UW Communications Assistant