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Research spotlight: Dr Amrita Kulka

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Research spotlight: Dr Amrita Kulka

Dr Amrita Kulka joined the Department of Economics, University of Warwick, in September 2021. Here she discusses her research on improving housing affordability and what attracted her to join the Department.

What research projects are you currently involved with?

Currently, the main strand of my work considers ways of improving housing affordability. Particularly, I think about how zoning regulations – regulations that stipulate what kind of housing and how much housing can be built in different areas – affect house prices and rents as well as the supply of different kinds of homes such as apartment buildings or single-family homes.

In work that focuses on single-family homes in North Carolina, I find that stricter zoning regulations in the form of larger minimum lot sizes for residential homes lead to segregation of households into different neighbourhoods based on income. Wealthier households live in larger, more expensive units in more tightly regulated neighbourhoods, while poorer households live in neighbourhoods with a relaxed level of the regulation. In this way, minimum lot sizes contribute to spatial income inequality. Allowing more density and smaller residential units in tightly regulated areas can lead to neighbourhoods that are more mixed in terms of their residents’ incomes, thereby broadening access to services and amenities in those areas.

In related work, we investigate how different zoning regulations in and around Boston interact with each other in different areas and how they interact with other aspects of local regulation such as the form of local town governance and other housing programs. Relaxing regulations that affect the maximum number of units allowed per acre seems to be most successful at increasing the supply of both apartment buildings and single-family homes as well as at reducing prices and rents. While the potential for increased affordability is highest in Boston’s suburbs, we find that price reductions are likely due in part to current homeowners having a distaste for increased residential density in their backyard. This indicates that the resistance to building, for example, more multi-family homes might be largest in areas where affordability could increase the most.

A second strand of my research broadly considers whether policies targeted at specific locations can revitalise areas and improve economic outcomes of the local population. One example is work that we do on shortages of primary care doctors in rural areas in the United States. Rural populations have significantly worse health outcomes compared to their urban counterparts – often in terms of diseases that are avoidable with sufficient preventative care. This is often due to an undersupply of primary care doctors. We find that programmes reducing student debt for physicians in exchange for working in underserved communities are not successful in increasing the number of doctors in rural areas. Doctors taking up the programme move away once its duration ends, meaning that long-term increases in rural doctors are moderate. Rather than paying physicians monetary incentives, a more promising avenue to reducing the rural physician shortage seems to be to attract doctors who are themselves from rural areas to return to their home localities.

Why did you choose this research field?

I work at the intersection of urban and public economics. I became fascinated with urban economics through my prior interest in how individuals and households choose where to live and move across countries and cities, as well as how government policies can foster the integration of recent immigrants or incentivise relocation. From there, I became increasingly interested in studying research questions at the local level within cities.

From my perspective, studying cities is fascinating for two main reasons though there are of course many others! Firstly, the place where we grow up, where we work and live, matters tremendously for access to education, to healthcare, to networks and to amenities such as supermarkets, green spaces or even clean air. Many of these attributes vary significantly within cities, giving rise to spatial inequality and highlighting the importance of hyper-local neighbourhoods. Therefore, I think that understanding which factors determine who lives where and what barriers exist to mobility is crucial if we want to develop policies that reduce inequality.

Secondly, cities and dense forms of living provide amenities that households enjoy and allow firms to benefit from agglomeration effects by locating themselves near other firms. Learning about the benefits (and costs) of living in highly dense areas also allows one to consider whether some of these benefits can translate to places that are not superstar cities. This can aid in thinking about reducing inequality between regions. The improved availability of extremely fine-grained geographical data in recent years means that we can now finally answer many questions about cities, which makes urban economics an exciting and dynamic field!

What impact do you hope your research will have on society?

Most of my research is motivated by questions that are important for real economic policymaking. Specifically, I try to answer how different kinds of inequality (e.g., inequality in access to housing, health, education) can be mitigated through government interventions. Since these questions have very direct consequences for society, I enjoy discussing my research with a broad audience including policymakers and community organisations.

I hope that my work on housing affordability informs current policy debates around whether and where to relax zoning regulations to allow more housing to be built and to make housing more affordable. Such debates are currently being held in different local and state governments across the United States. In the UK, similar debates are held, for example around increasing the density of existing housing stock and increasing housing supply across the country.

Understanding how relaxing zoning regulations can be one policy lever (alongside other policies such as housing vouchers) to increase housing affordability has strong implications for spatial inequality. For example, allowing more housing units near suburban train stations and important transit stops can broaden access to these neighbourhoods for households from a wider range of incomes, together with providing efficient commutes to workplaces. As income is often correlated with other factors such as race and immigrant status, generating a larger stock of apartment buildings and more affordable homes also has implications for integrating communities.

Why did you join the Economics Department at Warwick?

One of the main features that drew me to this department is the range of knowledge and subfields of Economics that is represented here as well as the breadth of empirical and theoretical methods that researchers at Warwick use in their work. As is the case in my work, many researchers at Warwick also think and collaborate outside of the boundaries of their own subfield. Doing work at the intersection of two or three main fields is common and encouraged. This leads to active discussions across fields that I believe make us all better economists.

The Department especially fosters junior scholars by placing an emphasis on mentoring and offering various platforms to receive feedback internally. The CAGE Research Centre is also a great resource that provides a space for taking the policy consequences and applicability of our academic research seriously and for engaging in dialogue with policymakers. Finally, what really sets the Department apart is its collegial and warm atmosphere in addition to the excellent research done here.

Dr Amrita Kulka is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick.