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Students tackle housing policy in SIEPR hackathon

May 24 2018

Participants in the policy hackathon — Aakash Pattabi, Olivia Martin, Terence Zhao and Anjali Katta — work on their winning project.

Photo by Elena Cryst

California’s housing crunch is a problem that doesn’t have many clear solutions. But teams of Stanford students recently tried to find a few.

During a daylong policy hackathon — the first to be held at Stanford — 30 undergraduates played the part of policymakers thinking through the trade-offs and constraints facing housing-stressed communities across the state.

The May 5 event was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and Stanford in Government (SIG).

“The idea for the hackathon was to give Stanford students a space to use their creativity and technical skills to create potential solutions for some of society’s most pressing problems,” said Michael Swerdlow, a junior who is the director of Stanford in Government’s Public Policy Forum.

“I felt that too often Stanford students viewed policy as the untouchable creations of politicians as opposed to potential solutions to problems they could work on themselves,” said Swerdlow, who proposed doing a hackathon to SIEPR Director Mark Duggan during Econ 1 office hours.

“I wanted to make policymaking seem accessible in the same way that building an app or start-up seems to be to students here.”

Eight teams competed, with proposals ranging from a reallocation of the low-income housing tax credit to a per-head “techie tax” on employers who quickly hire lots of workers in tight housing markets.

Teams pitched their proposals to a panel of California policymakers and economists at the end of an eight-hour development sprint. SIEPR’s Predoctoral Research Fellows provided technical advice to the undergraduates as they hammered out their policy recommendations.

The judges who heard the five-minute pitches were: Irena Asmundson, chief economist at the California Department of Finance; Sarah Bernstein Jones, planning director at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency; Issi Romem, chief economist at BuildZoom; Greg Rosston, a SIEPR senior fellow and director of Stanford’s Public Policy Program; and Matt Schwartz, the president and CEO of the California Housing Partnership.

The judges’ range of expertise brought a critical eye to the experience and provided the students with substantive feedback on the project.

“I was very impressed with the level of consideration and the output that the students were able to achieve in such a short time,” Rosston said. “I am always energized to see the passion that students can bring to these important policy issues.”

The winning project was “Identifying Housing Opportunity Hotspots in the Bay Area: Maximizing Opportunity while Minimizing Displacement,” and earned a $5,000 prize.

The second-place $2,500 prize went to an all-freshman team for their proposal to improve the allocation of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

"Participating in the hackathon was one of the best hands-on learning experiences I've had at Stanford,” said Olivia Martin, a junior and a member of the winning team. “Not only did I get to learn a great amount about policy — especially from the judges — but I also gained a better understanding of the ways in which data can inform effective policy. Looking forward to the next one!"

SIEPR and SIG plan to host their second policy hackathon next winter quarter.

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