John Kroencke, 2020–21 HOPE Center Fellow

Historians of economics work with ideas, and although many of those ideas exist only on paper, some can be plainly evident in the concrete, material world the historian inhabits.

Such is the case with John Kroencke, a 2020–21 HOPE Center fellow. John is writing about the role of the American economist Richard T. Ely in shaping housing policy in the first half of the twentieth century.

“The thing about housing policy is that you can walk out your front door and see it in practice right in front of you,” John says. “In that respect, living in Durham is really interesting, given the city’s racial history and economic transformation. My landlord here has lived in the same house for 25 years, and it’s been interesting hearing from her about the changes the neighborhood has gone through.”

Richard T. Ely was a forerunner of what is known as the institutionalist school of economics. Institutionalists regarded the economy almost as a living organism that needed constant monitoring—and frequent intervention.

“Ely approached housing policy in the context of wanting to improve the world,” John explains. “As an institutionalist and an academic, he very much felt obligated to engage with the world and make it a better place.”

Sometimes, though, Ely’s prescriptions had a less benevolent side. “For example, he thought that maintaining property values was good for society, but his solution involved such things as deed restrictions to prevent neighborhoods from becoming racially mixed,” John says.

As John explains, Ely’s effect on what today is known as land economics cannot be overstated. He founded a journal on the subject and helped established real estate as an academic field. He also wrote a series of textbooks that real estate agents used in their training.

John, who is a PhD student at George Mason University, attended the 2019 Summer Institute at the Center. There, he met the Center’s director, Bruce Caldwell, and with Bruce’s encouragement, began exploring if a year at the Center would be right for him.

So far, it has. “It’s been great, even with the COVID restrictions,” John says. “Having other historians around to talk to makes such a difference and has informed my research in all sorts of productive ways.”

John, who is a native of California and attended Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, will be at Duke until June.