Housing Complex

Funding Forces Think Tank to Think Less About D.C.

The Brookings Institution's Greater Washington Research program, helmed by former D.C. Control Board chairwoman Alice Rivlin, has for a decade put out in-depth studies on D.C. and the Washington region. They've ranged from the sweeping to the specific, including the case for D.C. budget autonomy, a call for a strong community college that set the foundation for the one that exists today, and a prescription for fixing out troubled summer jobs program. It's an important role: Other than D.C. Appleseed and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, both of which have more activist bents, nobody else really puts out unbiased research on D.C. issues with real academic heft like Brookings does.

That program, as such, has ceased to exist. Martha Ross, newly elevated to the position of Fellow for the think tank's  Metropolitan Policy Program, announced yesterday that she and other staff members would be focusing more on nationwide projects. What does that mean, exactly?

Today, Ross tried to reassure me that Brookings' commitment to the region remains, and that they'll just be breaking D.C. out of a "silo" to better compare it with other cities around the country. And there are still two weighty reports in the pipeline—one about congestion pricing and another about financing water and sewer infrastructure upgrades (yes, I find this exciting). Meanwhile, Rivlin continues to be a resource for District policymakers, talking just last week with the director of the city's Housing Finance Agency about the next generation of housing.

But Ross' department is still down to three people, from a high of five a few years ago, as money for local research from area foundations and individual donors has dried up. Those who remain will spend more of their time on country-wide urban policy issues, and landmark D.C.-centric studies will likely be fewer and far between. "There's never been a lot of money for local policy research," she said. "With the downturn, we're competing more with the safety net functions."

Given the value of their research to shoring up D.C.'s economy, it's hard not to see some irony in that.

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