The winning team poses for a celebratory photo with IOP director Heidi Heitkamp. From left: fourth-year Emma Janssen, Heitkamp, second-year Tiffany Li, and Harris Public Policy student Jane Jingyi Ma. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics)

In the weeds

Student teams take on the affordable housing shortage.

For the past year, the Institute of Politics (IOP) has been challenging teams of students to solve some of the most intractable problems in policymaking.

The IOP’s first policy challenge, The $1.6 Trillion Question, was held in fall 2022. (The question, if you don’t know that horrifying figure off the top of your head, refers to the student debt crisis.) The second challenge, Rerouting: Public Transportation for All, which centered on fixing Chicago’s transit system, followed in winter 2023. In spring came Solving World Hunger.

Now it’s fall again, and the quarterly challenge is tackling affordable housing. Students must figure out a way to “improve housing affordability in a city or rural area of their choice.”

The point of the exercise, says Heidi Heitkamp, IOP’s director, is to show students how complex these issues are, while encouraging them to consider simple solutions. Many students “want to solve the entire problem,” she says, but it’s also important to come up with a pragmatic plan that can actually be implemented.

Twelve teams—43 students in total, from the College, the Harris School of Public Policy, and the Divinity School—competed in the preliminary round. Teams had just three minutes to present their proposals and three minutes to answer questions from the judges.

Tonight, a Monday evening in mid-November, it’s time for the finals. The three finalist teams have a comparatively luxurious five minutes to present and five more to answer questions. Members of the winning team will receive $500 each and the chance to share their idea with policymakers. The winners of the student debt competition were able to submit their proposal to a US Senate committee; the winners of the Chicago public transportation challenge presented their plan to the Regional Transportation Authority and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The small lobby of the IOP, on Woodlawn Avenue just south of 57th Street, is crowded with two semicircles of chairs. Like most of its neighbors on Woodlawn, the three-story brick house has been converted to academic space; the fireplace and the one remaining leaded-glass window suggest this room was formerly the parlor or dining room.

Opposite the fireplace is a table for Heitkamp, the sole judge for the finals. As a US senator from North Dakota (2013–19), Heitkamp was a leading advocate for affordable housing.

Team 1, composed of three College students, presents a proposal called “Streamlining Santa Cruz.” Flashing an organizational chart on-screen, they explain that their plan would simplify the structure of the city’s economic and housing development department. The goal is to make it easier and faster for private developers to build affordable housing in one of California’s least affordable housing markets.

The material is dense and detailed; to get through it, the presenters adopt a frenzied, auctioneer-like delivery, ending a few seconds over time. “It’s an interesting proposal,” says Heitkamp, but “aren’t you just rearranging the deck chairs?”

(“I probably tend to be maybe a little more aggressive than some,” Heitkamp says of her feedback style in a later interview. “I really want to treat them with a lot of respect,” she says. “I don't think you do that by hand-holding.”)

Team 1 is unrattled by Heitkamp’s tough questioning. Streamlining the government structure would speed up private development of publicly owned land, they explain. And by publicly owned land, they clarify, they don’t mean parkland, but parking lots and other vacant lots.

Next up is Team 2, composed of two College and two Harris students. The team launches into a similarly dense, acronym-heavy proposal: “ADUnlock.”

“What’s an ADU?” Heitkamp interjects, midway through the second sentence.

“An Accessory Dwelling Unit. Often called a granny flat,” fourth-year Emma Janssen explains. The group’s proposal calls for a federal fund that would support programs at the state level. To unlock the federal funding, states could choose how to encourage the construction of ADUs: by removing zoning restrictions, streamlining the permit process, offering loans to homeowners to build them, and so on.

“I have a hard time believing that this is going to grow affordable housing for most people,” Heitkamp says. “If I looked at this and I were, you know, a house flipper, man, I’d salivate over this.”

But Team 2 is just as poised as Team 1: “I do think our proposal places a lot of trust in states,” Janssen says calmly.

“Yeah,” Heitkamp chortles. She adds, “If you’re going to do this, there need to be guardrails.”

Finally the all-Harris Team 3 steps up. Their title slide, “N.O.A.H.’s Ark,” appears on the screen over the fireplace.

“It’s not clear to me what Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing is,” Heitkamp cuts in before their presentation even starts. The group is granted an extra 20 seconds to define it. Despite the “natural” in its name, NOAH has nothing to do with parks or other green spaces. It refers to housing that already exists and is reasonably priced, but is in danger of becoming unaffordable.

Team 3 races through its proposal on NOAH housing in Los Angeles. The wide-ranging plan would offer low-cost loans to individual landlords to maintain NOAH housing, while encouraging new construction by fast-tracking the approval process and keeping down construction labor costs. There’s more, too, but—with one sentence to go, the moderator cuts them off.

“So you really think you’re going to be able to get California to waive wage and skilled labor requirements?” Heitkamp says, referring to the construction aspect of their proposal. “Trust me, that’s not going to work.” She’s just as skeptical of the team’s proposed vacancy tax (meaning a tax on second homes) to raise money for the program, and its simplified environmental standards.

Presentations over, she notes how “intractable” the problem of affordable housing is, then announces, “I’m going to go and consult myself.” The competitors laugh.

Just a few minutes later, Heitkamp returns, looking decisive as ever. “I’m actually shocked,” she says. “I liked all these proposals. It may not have seemed that way, but I did. I liked them all.”

First she eliminates Team 1, reiterating her deck chair comparison. Next she takes out Team 3: “Where theirs”—meaning Team 1’s proposal—“was too simple, yours was too complicated.” In addition, Team 3’s proposal relied on controversial measures like abandoning environmental standards and wage protections: “I didn’t see a clear path in the proposal to politically getting that done.”

That leaves Team 2: “You’re the winners,” Heitkamp says, sounding a little surprised. The other two teams—who make up the majority of the small audience—break into applause. (In a later interview, Heitkamp explains that she read all the proposals beforehand and did not anticipate this one would come out on top. But the scoring matrix rewarded the team’s persuasive presentation.)

Team 2’s plan isn’t perfect. Even as she’s announcing their win, Heitkamp flags the proposal’s flaws: “How are you going to define ‘family’? How are you going to really make those units affordable?” she says. “But I think the bones were there.”