In our Team Spotlight series, we share stories about members of our team, both past and present. Dr. Kevin Park is an economist at the Office of Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He formerly worked at the Center for Community Capital as a graduate research assistant. For more in this series, see our spotlight on Dr. Allison Freeman.
Kevin Park first heard about the UNC Center for Community Capital back in 2008. He had just started research in the area of housing finance at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. It was there that George McCarthy, formerly of the Ford Foundation, raved to him about a new paper from the Center titled, “Risky Mortgages or Risky Borrowers: Disaggregating Effects Using Propensity Score Models.” The results of the study showed that low-income homebuyers who obtained more sustainable, less risky, mortgage products carry significantly lower default risks than similar borrowers with riskier mortgages.
The study made a lasting impression on Park. “The importance of the paper and others like it is that while some borrowers clearly have a greater risk of default, the type of product they obtain also matters,” he explains. “If we want to expand homeownership, it will be through providing these ‘marginal’ borrowers greater access to credit.” The CCC was on his mind when, during the following year, Park applied to UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning.
“If we want to expand homeownership, it will be through providing these ‘marginal’ borrowers greater access to credit.”
At UNC, Park became a graduate research assistant with the Center for Community Capital. His work at the Center became an inextricable part of his graduate school career: he played a major role in evaluating the lasting impact of Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program activities and co-authored two papers on the role of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) during the Great Recession (“The Public Purpose of FHA” and “The Once and Future Federal Housing Administration”). And, in 2013, Park earned the Impact Award from the UNC Graduate Education Advancement Board for creating a website that incorporates foreclosure data from the Administrative Office of the Courts for North Carolina’s 100 counties. CCC Director Roberto Quercia said, “From his early days at the Center, Kevin showed star power. He has strong analytical and methodological skills and he is intellectually curious and creative in his approach to research problems.”
The combination of coursework and research proved to be an invaluable experience for Park. While his doctoral program equipped him with analytical techniques, the Center provided the real-life inspiration and opportunity to apply those techniques to housing and community development. Even more, “the Center is well respected across the country,” says Park. “That recognition and collaboration with other researchers built an important career network for me.”
Today, he works as an Economist at the Office of Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In his work, he researches many topics that he learned about at the Center, including housing finance policy generally, and also specifically as it relates to the FHA. “This work is clearly an extension of my time at the Center,” explains Park. In writing the two FHA papers at CCC, he came to view the FHA as being excessively criticized for its past transgressions and for its perceived obsolescence in the present. “But the Great Recession showed the importance of a federal mortgage insurance program,” argues Park, “and the FHA admirably reprised its countercyclical role on which it was founded.”
“Understanding requires more than numeracy… In fact, numbers can be used to obscure understanding rather than illuminate.”
Working at the Center also helped develop Park’s posture towards research, which he has carried with him into his current position. He learned at the Center that “understanding requires more than numeracy… In fact, numbers can be used to obscure understanding rather than illuminate.” Park provides an example from both CCC and HUD: the denial rate on mortgage applications. The share of home purchase mortgage applications denied by the lender actually fell during the Great Recession. An interpretation without the full context might imply that it became easier to buy a home during that period. But Park clarifies, “The number of applicants, and more importantly, the credit quality of the applicant pool, changed.” It’s up to experienced researchers like Park to tell the full story behind the data.
When asked what he misses about the Center, Park jokingly replies that he mostly misses North Carolina’s barbeque, bluegrass, and reduced traffic (at least compared to D.C.). He adds that “more seriously, the Center conducts research on finance policy without being in the colloquial orbit Wall Street or Capitol Hill,” says Park. “The focus remains on the household and communities.”
For more on Dr. Kevin Park’s research, visit his Google Scholar profile.