Rhea Acuña

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Sarah Hamersma

Subject Categories

Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Having safe and secure housing is a critical element to living a productive, quality life. My dissertation is comprised of three essays using three distinct datasets to delve into different elements of housing insecurity: housing affordability, mobility, and cost burden. The consequences of housing insecurity are wide ranging, compounding hardships for many vulnerable populations; therefore, it is important that we gain a better understanding of the extent of these housing-related challenges. In the first chapter, I utilize an applied empirical method in urban economics to connect housing prices and access to public transportation. I leverage the staggered opening of new Metro stations in a suburb of Washington DC to estimate both hedonic and repeat sales models that quantify the impact of proximity to public rail transit on housing prices. Both models estimate that housing prices increase as distance increases, suggesting that living near public transportation in Prince George’s County is primarily viewed as a disamenity. For properties at one mile from the nearest station, the preferred repeat sales model estimates a marginal price increase of 4.6 percent for a one-mile increase in distance. I argue that the suburban environment may be key in explaining the results. In the suburbs, a greater share of the population relies on automobiles and rail stations are typically equipped with large parking lots. The suburban environment allows households the opportunity to both benefit from the public transportation access and mitigate the negative externalities associated with living right next to the station. In the second chapter, I draw on program evaluation frameworks to estimate the effect of the Michigan Promise Zones, a place based-scholarship program, on student mobility. Using administrative student level data, I start with a difference-in-differences analysis to estimate overall program effects and find imprecise estimates. However, when I focus on Detroit, I find consistent evidence that the scholarship program reduced student mobility by about 3 to 4 percentage points, suggesting that heterogeneity across programs and communities may be masking the overall effect. To further shed light on the role of heterogeneity, I follow up with a synthetic control analysis. Although imprecisely estimated, the synthetic control analysis suggests that effects differ across place. My findings build on growing works that have underscored the importance of understanding how differences in program features and community context across promise programs translate to differential effects. In the third chapter, I use exploratory statistical methods to examine an affordable housing issue, cost burden, that has received increased attention since the Great Recession. A household is considered cost burdened if they devote more than 30 percent of their income to household expense. High household cost burden is viewed as a critical policy issue as it can lead to families cutting back on other critical necessities, increase material hardships, and result in adverse quality of life outcomes. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, I examine housing cost burden among independent young adults (18-35) in 2001-2019. I find that renters and individuals from more disadvantaged groups are associated with increased likelihood of cost burden. Housing cost burden grew by nine percentage points during this time, with compositional changes explaining a large share of the growth in cost burden among young adults. My findings extend our knowledge of the housing challenges experienced during the critical time of early adulthood. My research aims to broaden our understanding of how different elements of housing insecurity can manifest across different population groups and geographic areas. Housing insecurity is a persisting, evolving, and growing problem in the United States. Policies and programs that address distinct elements, and those that take a broader, holistic approach are needed to ensure access to safe, secure, and affordable housing.


Open Access

Available for download on Saturday, August 02, 2025