A House, a Tent, a Box: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understanding of Healthy Housing

Sponsoring Program Name: 
Frameworks Institute

Housing is deeply implicated in many of our most important social issues—health, economic opportunity and mobility, racial and economic segregation, education, and aging, to name a few—yet the issue rarely rises to the top of American political and social discourse. Coverage of housing in the news media fails to explain how quality, affordable housing can improve outcomes across a range of social and economic domains, and advocates similarly leave out this part of the story. As a result, current framing of housing fails to explain the broader signifcance of the issue for society.1 Moving housing issues to the forefront of our national conversation requires new ways of framing the issue. An effective reframing strategy can foster better understanding of housing issues, raise the salience of these issues in public thinking, and generate support for needed policies. Tis report represents the frst step in a larger project to develop such a strategy. Te project is a collaboration with Enterprise Community Partners, the National Center for Healthy Housing, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Tis report attends to the range of ways in which housing affects well-being, with a particular focus on issues of healthy housing. In later stages of the project, FrameWorks researchers will develop and empirically test framing tools and strategies, but in order to understand the specifc challenges these tools must address, as well as the type of tools and strategies that are likely to work, we must frst examine the cultural landscape around housing issues. Te core of this report is an exploration of the cultural models2—the implicit, shared understandings, assumptions, and patterns of reasoning—that the American public draws upon to think about housing in general and healthy housing in particular. Tis research differs from standard public opinion research, which documents what people say by conducting polls or focus groups. Te research described here documents how people think, and parses out the assumptions and thought processes that inform what people say and how they form judgments and opinions. Tis cultural-cognitive approach is powerful because identifying ways of thinking is key to developing more effective and strategic communications. By understanding how the public thinks about housing, communicators can better predict how their messages are likely to be received, avoid triggering unproductive ways of thinking about the issue, and leverage productive understandings to get their message across. Moreover, understanding how people think helps to identify those areas most in need of attention—the areas where public understandings consistently impede productive thinking—and yields hypotheses about what types of communications tools and strategies are likely to be effective. Tis report begins by describing the “untranslated expert story” of housing and its role in shaping health and well-being. Tis account comprises experts’ shared understandings of how housing affects health and well-being, and includes the policy and programmatic directions that experts argue could improve housing and lead to better outcomes. Tis untranslated story represents the content to be communicated to the public through a reframing strategy. “A House, a Tent, a Box”: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understanding of Healthy Housing 3 Te report proceeds to describe the cultural models that the public uses to think about housing and health. As all people have experiences with housing, it is not surprising that they bring a powerful set of cultural models to thinking about this topic. Some of these ways of thinking lead people to be concerned about housing issues, but at the same time limit people’s ability to recognize the types of solutions that are needed. Most critically, our research shows that people have a strong tendency to personalize housing issues, which in turn prevents them from seeing the structural sources of housing problems and dampens support for the policies and programs that can effectively address these problems. Te fnal section of the report identifes where expert and public understandings of housing and healthy housing overlap and diverge. Tis “Map the Gaps” analysis identifes the primary challenges in effectively communicating with the public about housing and health. We conclude the report by offering provisional recommendations, and chart a course for future research to develop an effective, comprehensive strategy for communicating about housing.

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