Kathryn (Kate) Howell joins MAPP this fall as the director of the National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG) and associate professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program. She succeeds Gerrit Knaap, who has served in the role since 2002. Howell previously worked as an associate professor of planning at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and was the co-founder and co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab. She earned her B.A. in Political Science at the University of Georgia, a M.A.S. in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University and her Ph.D. in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Texas.
Before pursuing her doctorate, Howell worked for Maryland and Washington, D.C., housing and community development agencies in the areas of affordable housing preservation, state program monitoring and inclusionary zoning.
Read more about Howell’s background.
Kathryn (Kate) Howell's career in urban planning has been rooted in the D.C. Metropolitan area for over 15 years. It all began through her roles at Maryland and D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development, which sparked her interest in how planning and neighborhood scale relate at city, state and country levels.
"Working for the D.C. government was an interesting space to be in because we were sort of working on big policy issues, but we could see them at the building level," Howell said about her work experience back in 2007.
"So, the very first thing that happened when I started my job was that the advocates in the city had organized a bus tour of buildings that had been preserved, using this law in D.C. that allows tenants to either purchase their building or decide who is going to purchase their building,” she added. “And this was…my first introduction right there."
Howell visited these places and had the opportunity to talk to tenant leaders and building owners. She discovered families from multi-generations lived in one building in areas such as U Street, Columbia Heights and W Street.
The city started to change during that time, and many developments began. Conflicts arose between the families who lived in the previously labeled Section 8 rental housing and the new neighbors who moved to those areas. The new neighbors questioned why the families were still living there since many new residents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on houses nearby.
"This conflict was really important because it's about, whose neighborhood is this?" Howell said. "And it's not just who gets to stay, but who fights to stay. So, it was sort of a critical reframing for me. I was lucky to be able to work on a lot of the preservation of affordable housing policies while I was there."
From that experience, Howell next worked with a team led by advocates to create recommendations for the first preservation policy in the city, and she further studied this work for her dissertation, which focused on urban renewal and the implications of preserving affordable housing in a rapidly changing neighborhood. She considered conflict in a gentrified community, where in the District, residents and advocates had preserved affordable housing, which led to questions such as: How do you handle income-restricted houses close to million-dollar homes? What does that look like in a public space? How do you still get to be yourself in a public space that you grew up in, but it's changing?
"These were these real cultural issues that were coming underway," Howell said. "It's like, no, maybe we didn't displace everybody physically, right? People can still stay, but then how do you stay? And that matters too."
Howell believes these issues, along with gentrification, redlining, urban studies and planning, are crucial to our society because people live in places all around the world where they have to consider commuting, find places to hang out or even decide if they can afford housing.
She wants people to know and learn that there's a role for everyone in helping cities change how they form and function. Urban studies play a part in this process by helping people understand how to see the world.
"I sort of think about this as a bit of a life skill, frankly," Howell said. "I used to teach a class called 'Introduction to the City' and it was a 100-level undergraduate class. And it had two purposes: One was, yes, we have our majors, and they have to learn certain things. The other part was, what do you need to understand about the history of cities, their current space and how they work in order to be an engaged citizen, right? And it turns out we've got to start answering these questions in order just to make informed decisions about the world."
One of the many projects Howell worked on to answer those questions was at her last job at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she co-founded the Richmond Virginia (RVA) Eviction Lab. The center focused on how to use data and research to serve three constituencies: policymakers/policy advocates, service providers and organizers.
The lab used data to explore specific policies and practices for addressing housing instability and its historic roots, as well as geographic and demographic patterns in evictions. Since Virginia doesn't release data down to the building level, Howell and her team had to be creative about developing those statistics. Rather than starting with evictions, they used parcel data from individual properties by researching who owned properties and matched them with eviction records.
"We started to pair those up, and we couldn't do it at the exact building level because if a landlord owned three buildings in the same zip code, we couldn't differentiate necessarily, but you could get it at the landlord level," Howell said. "And that was allowing our organizers to make those connections across landlords."
This work benefited many tenants during the pandemic when the government passed the CARES Act, which prohibited any federally supported property or one that was federally subsidized to evict people. As a result, Howell and her colleagues ran the first list of properties covered in the CARES Act to get tons of cases thrown out from landlords who tried to evict tenants.
This work also led to the basis of what became the Virginia Evictors Catalog, which the RVA Eviction lab created with the Virginia Equity Center. The catalog was a statewide plaintiff-level database for residents to search their building and find out how many evictions had occurred there.
"Landlords know so much about tenants, but we may not even know the name of the person who owns the building," Howell said. "So, this was helping to kind of balance that information and repackage it in a way that was useful for tenants, useful for organizers and ultimately useful for service providers because they were then able to target their resources at buildings where there were high levels of eviction and displacement."
Howell said such work with organizations can draw a connection with universities to continue this type of research.
"We don't have to be disconnected," Howell said. "There is no such thing as dispassionate research. But what we can do is say, 'Look, you have this knowledge. We have this knowledge. Let's bring it together to do something great."
Now, as MAPP's new National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG) Director, she hopes to pursue these efforts with the center.
"I think the part that I'm really excited about is taking that fantastic foundation that's been built," Howell said. "Gerrit Knaap built this amazing foundation, and I want to take it to whatever the next level needs to be."
"I'm going to listen and learn from everyone about where they want to go and how they want to take that, but also thinking about our partners and where they need us to be,” she added. “So, I'm excited about taking that focus to help kind of push and move with that approach to smart growth. The smartest growth is the growth that doesn't displace people.