Housing policy is generally not at the forefront of public debate, a panel of experts said this morning at a conference on “Building the Promise: Housing Assistance as Social Investment.”

The morning panel, part of the fifth annual Berkeley Conference on Housing and Urban Policy, focused primarily on public housing and studies that show the benefits of such housing go beyond economics. Public housing, panelists said, brings social benefits as well, such as a positive impact on children. Several of the panelists also touched on home ownership.

Sandra Newman, a professor of policy studies at Johns Hopkins University, said “home ownership really brings a large number of benefits to children.” But, she said, it’s not clear yet from studies whether that’s because of something inherent in owning a home or perhaps because families who own homes tend to be more stable than those who rent.

She said policy makers must decide whether developing home ownership programs for lower-income neighborhoods makes sense even if they serve less desirable areas.

Roberta Achtenberg, senior VP for public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said the business community can be a good ally when it comes to developing affordable housing programs. In areas with high housing costs, businesses often find they have problems recruiting and retaining employees because of housing issues, Achtenberg said.

She said religious communities, such as those in San Francisco, may also find themselves grappling with affordable housing issues. As middle-income people are priced out of the city, those churches can have dwindling congregations and students for their private schools, she said.

James Buckley, president of Citizens Housing Corp. in San Francisco, said studies like the ones Newman cited are important in persuading policymakers to address housing issues. But, he said, what usually gets their attention more are real-life stories and the chance to see for themselves affordable housing at work.

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