One of the stubborn, complicated elements in Chicago’s longstanding struggle with segregation is the home appraisal process. Communities of color historically have endured inequities in appraisals that have dragged down property values for decades.

policy labs
Harris Policy students discuss their recommendations with staff from The Chicago Community Trust.

As part of its initiative to close the region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap, the Chicago Community Trust wanted to launch a deep dive into appraisal inequities.

At the same time, the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) was looking to examine ways to make the process of applying for unemployment insurance benefits more seamless. Only around 26 percent of unemployed individuals apply for benefits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Both organizations turned to UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy for help. Specifically, the Trust and IDES utilized teams of master’s candidates at the Policy Labs at Harris.

For nearly a decade, the graduate school has led Policy Labs ­– a platform where, for academic credit, Harris student teams work with government agencies, nonprofits, multilateral institutions, and university divisions, under faculty supervision, to tackle pressing policy-related issues. Over that time, the Policy Labs have undertaken dozens of projects with a wide array of clients, including Chicago Metropolitan Agency for PlanningIllinois Medical DistrictUChicago Medicine, State of Wisconsin, Oxfam America, United Nations, World Bank, and Mercy Corps. Many projects focus on policy change to benefit disadvantaged populations.

This spring, Policy Labs teams took on nine public policy challenges in the areas of international development and global conflict, equity and the social safety net and philanthropy and equity. 

Paula Worthington, Academic Director of the Policy Labs

“We think very hard as a University about our neighbors and what our commitments are to communities on the South Side and to the city as a whole,” said Paula Worthington, Academic Director of the Policy Labs. “I view what we're doing as one manifestation of that—obviously one with a real pedagogical focus, to give our students a real professional experience when they walk out the door. But I think it is very consistent with the University's overall mission, which includes engagement with its community broadly construed.”

Faculty Advisor, Shelley Davis

About nine weeks after the Policy Labs team started working with the Chicago Community Trust, the team, guided by Faculty Advisor Shelley Davis, gave a presentation and handed the Trust a 68-page analysis with 14 recommendations the organization could use to help solve the problem.

The suggestions included exploring a coalition to push for the release of extensive appraisal data, partnering with a financial institution on a mortgage product that would boost inequitably low appraisals, and reforming the appraiser licensing and apprenticeship model to foster diversity in the appraisal profession.

“The appraisal ‘system’ is multi-layered with multiple actors, financial institutions and levels of government guiding the process. The team really helped us gain a clearer picture of what the policy levers are and gave us a menu of options that we and others might pursue to achieve systems level change with the greatest potential for impact. They moved us much further and faster toward identifying a potential body of work,” Ianna Kachoris, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Trust, said of the students’ work.

She also noted that the depth of the analysis and the team’s recommendations will help spark wider change.

“It’s not just about us,” Kachoris said. “It’s about how we can share this information more broadly and how that might lead to systems change down the line.”

‘Really important insights’

The Illinois Department of Employment Security has worked with Harris Policy Labs since 2020. This spring’s team of graduate students was asked to assess the unemployment insurance application and come up with recommendations to increase accessibility, prepare claimants prior to applying, and improve satisfaction survey data collection from applicants.

The team looked at “points of friction” that individuals experience when applying for benefits, said Jennifer Phillips, IDES Assistant Deputy Director of Service Delivery. A central element of that analysis was the survey that applicants complete immediately after submitting their application. Phillips said IDES wants to analyze data from the survey more effectively.

Robert Goerge, Faculty Advisor and Chapin Hall Senior Fellow

The Policy Labs team, guided by Robert Goerge, Faculty Advisor and Chapin Hall Senior Fellow, analyzed the survey responses and survey methodology and provided recommendations for improving it to obtain clearer, more robust data. They also conducted a qualitative look at the survey and best practices in other states and in other public benefit application systems, and then they made recommendations for improving IDES’s approach.

“IDES is reviewing the team’s recommendations and considering whether and how it could move forward to implement some of them,” Phillips said. The students’ observational analysis and recognition that parts of the application system were not optimized was impressive, she added.

“They made some really important insights and analytic points with the data. Everything they worked on has immediate, real-life, real-time application to it.”

Like Phillips, Kachoris at The Chicago Community Trust valued students’ fresh, diverse mix of perspectives and extensive work done in a short time.

“I was surprised at the level of expertise,” said Kachoris, MPP’02. “There was some magic in the students who came together around this. And they were just really thoughtful about the different ways we could twist and turn the issue and the implications that would have for how we would approach the issues and what the bang for our buck would be.”

Applying what they learned

policy lab students
Policy Labs have undertaken dozens of projects with a wide array of clients, including Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Illinois Medical District, UChicago Medicine, State of Wisconsin, Oxfam America, United Nations, World Bank, and Mercy Corps.

About one-third of second year students at Harris participate in the labs. This spring, Nicole Martinez, MPP’23, and Connor Bailey, MPP’23, were among them.

Both said they valued the practical application of their academic work, team interactions, and the strengths their teammates brought to the projects.

“I think what’s going to stick with me is how to edit a project down to what the client wants,” Martinez said. For her, the most challenging aspect of the IDES project was working within the limits of government online platforms, “but it’s a really good way of us learning how to adapt.”

Bailey said he appreciated “going deep on a specific topic,” which allowed him, among other things, to give greater consideration to the values behind econometric equations.

“I think there’s transferable knowledge,” he added, “the idea that there are a lot of specific pieces of this project that I think can relate to other policy areas — being able to make those analogies is really valuable and is something a generic course can’t really give you.”

A version of this story originally appeared at the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement.