Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hildebrand applies skills to state planning, housing grants

Ellen Hildebrand


Ellen Hildebrand completed her master of public affairs in 2015 and is now working with the WI Department of Administration-Division of Housing as a grants specialist.

A belief in the power of policymakers to create public policy that helps people led Ellen Hildebrand to a career in urban planning and housing policy.

"I have been interested in government and social and environmental policy since I was very young," the third-year student says, "and for a long time, I was dead set on becoming a lawyer because I saw the impact court decisions could have on policy, especially environmental policy. I saw that the legal system often reacts to public policy, both good and bad. I decided that I would much rather influence policy during its creation."

As Hildebrand winds up her double master's degrees in public affairs, and in urban and regional planning, she finds herself making policy as a grants specialist advanced with the Wisconsin Department of Administration's Division of Housing. "I manage federal and state programs that fund projects assisting people experiencing homelessness," says Hildebrand, who has accepted a permanent position after working with the division since May 2013.

"I use many of the skills I learned at the La Follette School," Hildebrand says. "The grant program uses a data-driven funding formula to distribute dollars across the state based on both the performance of homeless service providers and the number of people they serve. The position also involves navigating a complex regulatory system and providing technical assistance to grantees."

She has worked on several projects for DOA, including the Wisconsin Consolidated Plan, which maps for five years the use of Wisconsin's block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The planning process involved extensive data gathering and analysis, as well as interaction with citizens and stakeholders at public input sessions," Hildebrand says. "The Consolidated Plan is in its final stages right now, and it has been rewarding to manage the planning process from beginning to end."

Hildebrand has focused her studies on land-use planning and housing policy. "Decent affordable housing is lacking in growing urban areas," she says. "Cities should be inclusive of people at all income levels to create stronger neighborhoods and increased opportunities for lower income families. Policies that increase housing choice also have numerous additional benefits, such as decreasing transportation costs borne by families and the transportation system, decreasing racial and economic segregation, and revitalizing distressed neighborhoods. Good land-use planning has the potential to improve everyone's quality of life."

Hildebrand experienced the benefits of such policies when she lived in Valladolid, Spain, while she was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, from which she graduated in 2012 with a degree in political science.

"Valladolid demonstrates how the built environment can influence the lives of citizens for the better," Hildebrand says. "Valladolid is a compact city where everyone is within walking distance of everything they need. Bike lanes, bus lanes, and wide sidewalks adorn the city, often eclipsing the streets. Instead of large street systems and unused space, Valladolid has parks, fountains and plazas for people to gather. Because the policymakers of Valladolid designed the city sustainably, the quality of residents' lives is excellent."

Rather than just focusing on urban planning, Hildebrand expanded her training to include public affairs and policy analysis. "The La Follette School has a strong quantitative focus that many planners are not as familiar with," Hildebrand says. "During college and my work experience, I have often seen a divide between those who work with data and those who make decisions about local policy. Too often, there is not rigorous evaluation of governmental policies, especially at the local level, to truly determine what works. I'd like to bring some expertise from both fields into my career."

"I like that La Follette allows students to branch out and take courses in areas that interest them," she adds. "La Follette students develop strong quantitative and policy analysis skills in core courses, but can also specialize in a number of different topics. I was able to take courses in La Follette, URPL and the real estate program."

In her courses, Hildebrand has done work for real-world clients, including an analysis of a unique dataset that matched foster care and homelessness information from different Wisconsin agencies. Her team did the study for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families as part of the spring 2014 Workshop in Public Affairs taught by Donald Moynihan. "Also, I've worked on a cost-benefit analysis project evaluating different types of blood irradiators for the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative," she says, "and I helped with a program evaluation plan for the Children's Trust Fund's Community Response Program."

Hildebrand notes that the program's small size facilitates such teamwork. "Small class sizes have been very beneficial in discussion-based classes," she says. "Rather than only attending lecture style classes, La Follette students are able to engage in discussion of concepts with other students and faculty. The program is small enough that students can develop relationships with faculty and benefit from networking opportunities."

"La Follette is situated in a great location," Hildebrand adds. "There are numerous policy-related jobs in the Madison area."

Last modified on Wednesday, August 3, 2016