While Michael Stone’s entire collegiate career was focused on the study of the stars, a fascination with urban planning inspired him to pursue work that addressed the economic and housing issues of the poor.
A promising young scholar of astrophysics, Dr. Stone turned down a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University to work in Trenton, N.J., for a federal program that dealt with urban issues such as affordable housing.
“He just felt like astrophysics was too removed from what people were facing on the streets,” said Marie Kennedy, a professor emerita of community planning who formerly taught alongside Dr. Stone at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “He wanted to be involved in the great urban struggles of our time.”
Dr. Stone, who taught for about four decades at UMass Boston, where he was a founding faculty member of the College of Public and Community Service, died in a drowning accident March 21 in Kauai, Hawaii. He was 72 and the date of his death was also his 48th wedding anniversary with his wife, Ursula, of Hanover.
After turning to urban planning, Dr. Stone’s career quickly blossomed as he became a champion for the poor and argued that a decent living environment was a basic right.
“Housing is more than physical shelter. The residential environment consists of not only the dwelling unit but the site and setting, neighbors and community, municipality and public services, habitability and accessibility, rights and responsibilities, costs and benefits,” he wrote at the outset of “Shelter Poverty: New Ideas on Housing Affordability,” his 1993 book.
“We occupy our houses,” he wrote, “and, for better and for worse, they become our homes.”
Dr. Stone argued against the accepted practice of charging poor families a fixed percentage of their income for subsidized housing. He wanted to replace that approach with a sliding scale under which families with more money would pay more, and those with fewer resources would pay less. Also, he argued, if two households had the same income, the household with fewer people could afford to pay more.
“People paying more than they can afford on this sliding scale are shelter poor — the squeeze between their limited incomes and excessive housing costs leaves them with not enough money to address their non-housing needs at a minimum adequate level,” he wrote in “Shelter Poverty: The Chronic Crisis of Housing Affordability,” a 2004 paper published in the New England Journal of Public Policy.
“A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda,” a 2006 book Dr. Stone coauthored with Rachel G. Bratt and Chester Hartman, captured his frustration: “It is unconscionable that in the 21st century, upwards of 100 million people in the United States live in housing that is physically inadequate, in unsafe neighborhoods, overcrowded, or way beyond what they can realistically afford. Yet it could be quite different.”
The older of two children, Michael E. Stone was born in Baltimore. His father, Everett Stone, was a chemical engineer who worked on military projects. His mother, the former Regina Levy, raised the children.
After graduating from the University of California Los Angeles in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy, he became a fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge for a year, and received a doctorate in astrophysics from Princeton University.
Following his fellowship in England, Dr. Stone was touring Europe when he met Ursula Scheur, a native of Germany who also was traveling. They bunked at the same Belgium youth hostel, visited museums, and shared meals. On their second day together, the hubcaps on his Volkswagen were stolen.
“We had to deal with this together because he didn’t speak German,” Ursula said. “So he and I trotted off to the police and the insurance company.”
They quickly grew close while in Europe and Dr. Stone proposed after knowing Ursula just five days. They eventually separated to continue their journeys, but he returned to Germany in 1967 to marry her.
They decided to live in the United States so Dr. Stone could finish his studies at Princeton.
They moved to Boston in 1971 and he worked at Abt Associates, a consulting firm for public policy and business research, before leaving to join Urban Planning Aid, an advocacy group.
In 1973, Dr. Stone was among those who designed a curriculum at UMass Boston that focused on urban issues and was built on the idea that community organizing and research projects that involved local residents would bolster learning.
The program attracted students of all ages and backgrounds.
“We knew we were getting the best education that one could provide,” said Pat O’Brien, a student of Dr. Stone’s who went on to be a housing advocate. “He took us on a journey of awareness. It was just wonderful.”
Although Dr. Stone’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton discussed the evolution of galactic nuclei, his later writings focused on earthbound matters of social justice.
His work, which challenged conventional housing policies and advocated for more sympathetic treatment of the poor, included “People Before Property: A Real Estate Primer and Research Guide” and “Tenants First! A Research and Organizing Guide to FHA Housing,” the latter of which he coauthored with Emily Achtenberg.
“Michael just jumped right in and did amazing work,” said his former colleague Kennedy, who has been a visiting professor of urban planning at UCLA. “He wrote some of the most important work in the field, and much of it is still being used today.”
In addition to his wife and his father, who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., Dr. Stone leaves two sons, Erik Sekimoto-Stone of Nuremberg, Germany, and Caleb of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister, Paula Hawkes of Healdsburg, Calif.; and five grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Dr. Stone’s life and work at 5 p.m. June 2 at Project Hope in Roxbury.
As a professor of community planning, community studies, and public policy at UMass Boston, Dr. Stone remained an active advocate on housing issues, and he was a visiting scholar in Australia during the 2009-10 academic year.
Colleagues said local housing initiatives such as the Boston Tenant Coalition, the Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, and the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston have used his analyses on racial and economic equality in their advocacy efforts.
“He had a high level of commitment to the values he held,” his wife said. “He stayed true to them throughout his life.”
Jasper Craven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.