Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis (with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer). 2019. Cambridge University Press

In this book, we show how neighborhood participation in the housing permitting process exacerbates existing political inequalities, limits the housing supply, and contributes to the current affordable housing crisis. Participatory institutions like planning and zoning boards invite comments from neighbors on proposed housing developments. While neighbors with all viewpoints are welcome, we show that the individuals who choose to participate hold overwhelmingly negative views of new housing—far more negative than their broader communities—and are socioeconomically advantaged on a variety of dimensions. Using land use institutions, these individuals—who we term neighborhood defenders—are able to raise concerns that lead to lengthy delays, high development costs, and smaller projects. The result is a diminished housing stock and higher housing costs.

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2023. “Who Represents the Renters?” (with Joseph Ornstein and Maxwell Palmer). Download here.

Owning a home profoundly shapes Americans’ economic and political lives and preferences. A wide body of housing policy research suggests that homeowners receive favorable treatment from public policy at all levels of government. We know virtually nothing, however, about the descriptive representation of renters and homeowners. This paper combines a novel data set of over 10,000 local, state, and federal officials with administrative data on property records to assess the descriptive representation of renters and homeowners in the United States. We find that renters are starkly underrepresented by a margin of over thirty percentage points–a gap that persists across a variety of institutional and demographic contexts. Public officials are substantially more likely to own single-family homes that are more valuable than other homes in their neighborhoods. Collectively, these findings suggest deep representation inequalities that disadvantage renters at all levels of government.

2022. “Still Muted: The Limited Participatory Democracy of Public Zoom Meetings.” (with David Glick, Luisa Godinez Puig, and Maxwell Palmer). Download here.

Recent research has demonstrated that participants in public meetings are unrepresentative of their broader communities. Some suggest that reducing barriers to meeting attendance can improve participation, while others believe that such changes will be produce minimal changes. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted public meetings online, potentially reducing the time costs associated with participating. We match participants at online public meetings with administrative data to learn whether: (1) online participants are representative of their broader communities and (2) representativeness improves relative to in-person meetings. We find that participants in online forums are quite similar to those in in-person ones. They are similarly unrepresentative of residents in their broader communities and similarly overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing. These results suggest important limitations to public meeting reform. Future research should continue to unpack whether reforms might prove more effective at redressing inequalities in an improved economic and public health context.

2021. “Land of the Freeholder: How Property Rights Make Voting Rights.” (with Maxwell Palmer). Journal of Historical Political Economy. Download here.

A large body of research documents the dominance of homeowners in local politics. There has been little scholarship, however, on the role that voting institutions have played in empowering homeowners from the inception of the United States; indeed, most accounts describe property qualifications for voting and officeholding as largely fading from view by the mid-1800s. Combining a novel analysis of state constitutions and constitutional conventions with data on state statutes, this article explores the emergence of property qualifications for voting, with a particular emphasis on their role in local politics. We find that, counter most historical narratives, property requirements persisted well into the 20th century, with almost 90 percent of property requirements restricting voting and officeholding at the local level. Most centered on local bond referenda, school districts, and land use — suggesting that homeowner citizens were granted particular political control over local taxation and public services. These requirements were largely clustered in the American South and West — emerging alongside Jim Crow laws and mass availability of federal public lands — and were not eliminated until the Supreme Court took action in 1969 and 1970. This article illuminates the important role that voting institutions played in linking homeownership with American democratic citizenship, especially at the local level.

2020. “Perceptions of Public Health Priorities and Accountability among U.S. Mayors.” (with Luisa Godinez Puig, David M. Glick, Maxwell Palmer, and Monica Wang). Public Health Reports. Download here.

Mayors have considerable and often direct influence over health policy in their cities, yet little is known about mayors’ general perceptions of current public health challenges. The objective of this study was to assess perceptions, attitudes, and priorities related to public health among US mayors. We collected survey data from a nationally representative sample of US mayors (N = 110) in 2018 and matched survey responses with city-level health surveillance data. We conducted descriptive analyses and multivariable regression modeling to estimate associations of interest. Mayors in our sample most frequently cited obesity/chronic diseases (23.6%; 26 of 110), opioid abuse/drug addiction (22.7%; 25 of 110), and health care access (13.6%; 15 of 110) as the top health challenges facing their cities. However, mayors identified a different set of health issues for which they believed constituents hold them accountable. With the exception of opioid-related deaths, prevalence of a health concern was not associated with perceived accountability for that particular issue, whereas partisanship and sex predicted patterns in perceived accountability. Mayors recognized critical health challenges at the city level but varied widely in their perceived accountability for such challenges. Findings can inform strategies to engage local policy makers in cross-sector collaborations to improve the health and overall well-being of people in cities across the United States.

2020. Can Mayors Lead on Climate Change? Evidence from Six Years of Mayors (with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer). The Forum. Download here.

In the face of federal government intransigence, climate activists are looking to the local leaders to aggressively address climate change. While local politicians are limited in many respects, their control over land use and transportation policy provides them with powerful tools to reduce Americans’ reliance on cars–thereby decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Using six years of novel elite survey data, we find that mayors are strongly committed to addressing climate change and reducing their communities’ reliance on cars. They are also supportive of some specific policies–including the construction of dense, multifamily housing and bicycle lanes–that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Other policy views, though, reveal that mayors do not consistently endorse evidence-based transportation policy practices that would make walking and cycling safe and attractive modes of transit. Insufficient knowledge, a lack of funding, partisan polarization, and public opposition all pose potent obstacles to mayors taking the lead on climate change.

2020. The Pictures in Their Heads: How U.S. Mayors Think about Racial Inequality. (with Luisa Godinez Puig and Spencer Piston).  Urban Affairs Review. Download here

What role do city governments play in racially unequal urban areas? We take a new approach to this question, focusing on elite racial psychology. Using an anonymous, telephone survey of mayors of large cities across the United States, we find that, while some mayors advocate for meaningful policy change to deal with inequality, many mayors either deny that racial inequality exists, claim that they do not have control over racial inequality, or promote toothless, symbolic dialogues about race. Partisanship is the most consistent predictor of mayors’ attitudes, with Democratic mayors more likely to recognize and address racial inequality. These results suggest that mayors’ perceptions may inhibit efforts to address racial inequality, and lead to symbolic rather than structural action. The findings also contribute to a growing literature on the importance of elite psychology to American politics.


2018. Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes. (with Maxwell Palmer and David Glick). Perspectives on Politics. Download here.

Scholars and policymakers have highlighted institutions that enable community participation as a potential buffer against existing political inequalities. Yet, these venues may be biasing policy discussions in favor of an unrepresentative group of individuals. To explore who participates, we compile a novel data set by coding thousands of instances of citizens speaking at planning and zoning board meetings concerning housing development. We match individuals to a voter file to investigate local political participation in housing and development policy. We find that individuals who are older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners are significantly more likely to participate in these meetings. These individuals overwhelmingly (and to a much greater degree than the general public) oppose new housing construction. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and may be contributing to rising housing costs.

2018. City Learning: Evidence of Policy Information Diffusion From a Survey of U.S. Mayors. (with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer).  Political Research Quarterly.  Download here.

Most studies of policy diffusion attempt to infer the processes through which policies spread by observing outputs (policy adoptions). We approach these issues from the other direction by directly analyzing a key policymaking input — information about others’ policies. Using a survey of U.S. mayors, more specifically, mayors’ own lists of cities they look to for ideas, we find evidence that distance, similarity, and capacity all influence the likelihood of a policy maker looking to a particular jurisdiction for policy information. We also consider whether these traits are complements or substitutes and provide evidence for the latter. Finally, we show that policymakers look to others for a variety of reasons, but report that they most often choose where to look for policy specific reasons.

2018. Do Mayors Run for Higher Office? New Evidence on Progressive Ambition. (with David Glick, Maxwell Palmer, and Robert Pressel). American Politics Research.  Download here.

The mayor’s office represents a theoretically excellent launchpad for higher office—especially for members of the Democratic Party, whose stable of potential candidates has been depleted in recent years by Republican dominance in state-level contests. We know relatively little, however, about the extent to which mayors run for higher office, as well as the type of mayors who choose to do so. This paper combines longitudinal data on the career paths of mayors of two hundred big cities with a novel survey of mayors to investigate these questions. While we find that mayors’ individual and city traits—especially mayoral gender—have some predictive power, the overwhelming story is that a relatively low number of mayors—just under one-fifth—seek higher office. We suggest that ideological, institutional, life-cycle, and electoral factors all help to explain why so few mayors exhibit progressive ambition.

2018. Black Lives Matter: Evidence of Grievance as a Predictor of Protest Activity. (with Vanessa Williamson and Kris-Stella Trump). 2018. Perspectives on PoliticsDownload here.

Since 2013, protests opposing police violence against black people have occurred across a number of American cities under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” We develop a new dataset of these protests and explore the contexts in which they emerge. We ask whether Black Lives Matter protests are more likely to occur in localities where more black people have previously been killed by police. While scholars of social movements have been unable to find evidence of grievance theory in other cases, we find evidence that the specific grievance of police-caused deaths of black people predicts protest activity in this case. We link the features of police killings to factors that have previously been shown to facilitate the emergence of protest activity: strong in-group identity, blame assignment to an outside group, and perceptions of efficacy. We suggest that under particular conditions, grievances are likely to lead to protests, thereby refining the predictions of contemporary social movement theory.

2017. Cities in American Federalism: Evidence on State-Local Government Conflict from a Survey of Mayors. (with David Glick). Publius: The Journal of Federalism. Download here.

Previous scholarship on American federalism has largely focused on the national government’s increasingly conflictual relationship with the states. While some studies have explored the rise of mandates at the state level, there has been comparatively less attention on state-local relationships. Using a new survey of mayors, we explore variations in local government attitudes towards their state governments. We find some evidence that, regardless of partisanship, mayors in more conservative states are unhappy about state funding and—especially—regulations. More strikingly, we also uncover a partisan mismatch in which Democratic mayors provide especially negative ratings of their state’s funding and—even more strongly—regulations. These findings have important implications for state-local relations as cities continue to become more Democratic and Republicans increasingly dominate state-level contests.

2017. Does Race Affect Access to Government Services?: An Experiment Exploring Street-Level Bureaucrats and Access to Public Housing. (with David Glick). American Journal of Political Science.  Download here.

While experimental studies of local election officials have found evidence of racial discrimination, we know little about whether these biases manifest in bureaucracies that provide access to valuable government programs and are less tied to politics.  We address these issues in the context of affordable housing programs using a randomized field experiment. We explore responsiveness to putative white, black, and Hispanic requests for aid in the housing application process. In contrast to prior findings, public housing officials respond at equal rates to black and white email requests. We do, however, find limited evidence of responsiveness discrimination towards Hispanics. Moreover, we observe substantial differences in email tone. Hispanic housing applicants were twenty percentage points less likely to be greeted by name than were their black and white counterparts. This disparity in tone is somewhat more muted in more diverse locations, but it does not depend on whether a housing official is Hispanic.

2016. Cities, Inequality, and Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey of Mayors. (with David Glick). Urban Affairs ReviewDownload here.

Policymakers and scholars are increasingly looking to cities to address challenges including income inequality. No existing research, however, directly and systematically measures local political elites’ preferences for redistribution. We interview and survey 72 American mayors—including many from the nation’s largest cities—and collect public statements and policy programs to measure when and why mayors prioritize redistribution. While many of the mayors’ responses are consistent with being constrained by economic imperatives, a sizable minority prioritize redistributive programs. Moving beyond the question of whether mayors support redistribution, we find that partisanship explains much of the variation in a mayor’s propensity for redistribution. Moreover, the impact of partisanship very rarely varies with institutional and economic contexts. These findings suggest that national political debates may be shaping local priorities in ways contrary to conventional views, and that they may matter even more than other recent findings conclude.

2016. The Polarizing Effect of the Stimulus: Partisanship and Voter Responsiveness to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (with Kris-Stella Trump and Vanessa Williamson) Presidential Studies Quarterly. Download here.

We examine the effect of a sudden influx of government spending, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), on support for the President’s party. Using a difference-in-difference design, we find that stimulus spending had a modest positive effect on Democratic vote share, but only in counties that were already Democratic-leaning. In Republican counties, by contrast, government spending had a small, but significant negative effect on Democratic vote share. That is to say, ARRA polarized already partisan places. These results have important implications for the study of voter responsiveness and the measurement of the political effects of policies and policy visibility more generally.

2015. Do I think the BLS are BS? The Consequences of Conspiracy Theories. (with David Glick)  Political Behavior. Download here.

While the willingness of people to believe unfounded and conspiratorial explanations of events is fascinating and troubling, few have addressed the broader impacts of the dissemination of conspiracy claims. We use survey experiments to assess whether realistic exposure to a conspiracy claim affects conspiracy beliefs and trust in government. These experiments yield interesting and potentially surprising results. We discover that respondents who are asked whether they believe in a conspiracy claim after reading a specific allegation actually report lower beliefs than those not exposed to the specific claim. Turning to trust in government, we find that exposure to a conspiracy claim has a potent negative effect on trust in government services and institutions including those unconnected to the allegations. Moreover, and consistent with our belief experiment, we find that first asking whether people believe in the conspiracy mitigates the negative trust effects. Combining these findings suggests that conspiracy exposure increases conspiracy beliefs and reduces trust, but that asking about beliefs prompts additional thinking about the claims which softens and/or reverses the exposure’s effect on beliefs and trust.

2015. Pushing the City Limits: Policy Responsiveness in Municipal Government. (with Vladimir Kogan) Urban Affairs Review. Download here.

Are city governments capable of responding to the preferences of their constituents? Or is the menu of policy options determined by forces beyond their direct control? We answer these questions using the most comprehensive cross-sectional database linking voter preferences to local policy outcomes in more than 2,000 mid-size cities and a new panel covering cities in two states. Overall, our analysis paints an encouraging picture of democracy in the city: we document substantial variation in local fiscal policy outcomes and provide evidence that voter preferences help explain why cities adopt different policies. As they become more Democratic, cities increase their spending across a number of service areas. In addition, voter sentiment shapes the other side of the ledger, determining the level and precise mix of revenues on which cities rely. In short, we show that cities respond both to competitive pressures and the needs and wants of their constituents.


Working Papers

“The Gray Vote: How Older Home-Owning Voters Dominate Local Elections.” (with Maxwell Palmer, Ellis Hamilton, and Ethan Singer). Under Review. Download here.

Local elections are widely recognized as low turnout affairs compared with their national level counterparts. But, scholars have little systematic national data on the composition of the local electorate, and how compositional disparities may vary by context. In this paper, we use a national voter file to compare turnout in general, midterm, and off-cycle local elections in over 500 cities. We provide novel estimates of turnout gaps by race, age, and homeownership status in local elections, and identify stark inequalities compared with national and state elections. We find sizable turnout gaps both by age and homeownership status at the local levels, far exceeding those in national contests. Turnout disparities by age and homeownership status are twice as large as those between Black and white voters, and are considerably larger in off-cycle contests.

“Planning for Homelessness: Land Use, Housing Markets, and Cities’ Homelessness Responses.” with Charley Willison. Revise and Resubmit, Urban Affairs Review. 

Many American cities are in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Through their control over zoning and land use policy, local governments can reduce homelessness by facilitating housing construction and improving housing affordability. Using administrative data and surveys of local public officials, this paper asks whether (and which) cities connect their homelessness and land use policies. We find that local homelessness policy seldom emphasizes land use and zoning policies centered on increasing the local housing supply. Cities in California and the Pacific region are generally more likely to make these connections, suggesting an important state role in guiding local homeless and planning policies. Cities with high and low levels of unsheltered homelessness show little difference in their propensity to connect land use and zoning policies with homelessness.

“How Affordable Housing Can Exclude.” (with Maxwell Palmer). Under Review. 

Affordable housing is often studied as a single good: we measure its production and availability; evaluate policies to increase supply; or study the development process. But, there are many types of affordable housing. In this paper, we ask: How do the different types of affordable housing shape the politics of permitting new affordable housing, and what is the impact of these politics on home-seekers? We find that affordable housing is a surprisingly heterogeneous good, which often comes with a number of exclusionary restrictions attached. Some cities and towns disproportionately permit units that are smaller, less financially accessible, and age restricted. Racial threat may motivate at least some of these choices: subsidized housing units in whiter cities and towns—especially those surrounded by communities with higher Black populations—are more likely to be age restricted.

“When Are Mayors Polarized?” (with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer).


A growing body of scholarship investigates the extent to which national partisan polarization filters down to the local level. We have little evidence, however, on: (1) the size of the local partisan divide; and (2) the extent to which it varies by policy issue. Using nine years of data from a nationwide survey of mayors, we uncover wide variations in local partisan polarization. Across the 225 survey questions we analyzed, Democratic and Republican mayors frequently exhibit sharp divides in some of their policy preferences and broader perceptions of the world, but these splits varied considerably by policy issue. On some policy areas, like housing, there is little difference in the views of Democratic and Republican mayors; in other areas, such as regulation or social issues, the partisan divide is quite stark. \textit{Within} some policy areas, there was variation in partisan divisions: for example, Republican and Democratic mayors held fairly similar views on many policing reforms, but differed dramatically in the extent to which they believed racism and racial inequality permeated police behavior. While local politics is highly partisan in many domains, mayoral views are not consistently split along partisan lines.


Menino Survey of Mayors 

Since 2014, I have been one of the co-principal investigators of the Menino Survey of Mayors. Each year, we ask a nationally representative set of mayors of cities over 75,000 about a range of topics–from policy priorities and sources of policy information to views on racial discrimination. We have published numerous policy reports and peer-reviewed articles illuminating the mayors’ preferences, key challenges, and policymaking process. Please feel free to reach out if you’re interested in learning more about the survey or would like to use our data in your own research!