Atlantic Cities

Fresh Data on Public Housing Relocation and Crime

Fresh Data on Public Housing Relocation and Crime
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"Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected. But the connection was too obvious to ignore," wrote Hanna Rosin in what has become a controversial article published in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic.

The connection, seemingly, was that a map of increasing crimes rates in Memphis overlapped almost exactly with the locations of people relocated from demolished public housing projects. Those relocated people were recipients of housing vouchers – Section 8 – through the Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI program, and the fact that crime was following them raised a lot of concern among officials who thought they were solving some of the problems associated with concentrating poverty in housing projects.

The correlation between these two data sets has raised a lot of questions among housing advocates and academics as to what, if any, causation there might be between the relocation of public housing residents and crime.

Two massive public housing relocation programs – in Atlanta and Chicago – offer more data to flesh out this question. A recently released study from the Urban Institute examined the experiences of these two cities to try to find out how the large-scale relocation of the families from within these public housing projects affects the neighborhoods to which they move, mainly in terms of crime.

Through programs launched in the late 1990s, each city has been relocating thousands of public housing residents through voucher programs. Approximately 16,000 households are part of the relocation plan from the Chicago Housing Authority. In Atlanta, about 10,000 households were relocated, and the vast majority ended up in the private market through the use of housing vouchers.

By analyzing quarterly crime and voucher data, researchers at the Urban Institute were able to track changes in crime rates and create a more robust picture of how those rates relate to housing relocation. For the most part, their results show only slight connections between crime rates and relocated public housing residents. Their main takeaway: "Once the number of relocated households reached a certain threshold, crime rates, on average, decreased less than they would have if there had been no former public housing inmovers," they write.

In Chicago, they correlate the relocation of public housing residents with a 1 percent drop in violent crime and a 0.3 percent increase in property crimes, independent of other factors affecting crime rates. In Atlanta, there were also decreases: a 0.7 percent drop in violent crimes and a 0.5 percent drop in property crimes.

Overall, not huge decreases, but positive signs nonetheless.

However, when the researchers looked at the few neighborhoods in each city into which more than just a few households relocated, they found that crime decreased less than it would have if no former public housing residents moved in. Crime still went down, but less than it was dropping in other parts of these cities.

The authors note that these trends are far less drastic than typical media reports would suggest. The impact of relocated public housing residents, though, varies with the concentration of relocated households in a given area. For example, a neighborhood in either Atlanta or Chicago with a high density of relocated households – more than 14 per 1,000 households – has a rate of violent crime 21 percent higher than a neighborhood with no relocated residents. There are no impacts on crime associated with very low densities, those with two or fewer relocated households per 1,000.

But in both cities, the neighborhoods that saw the largest impact in terms of crime were those that were already vulnerable, with high poverty and crime rates even before the relocated residents arrived. These areas are far more likely to have lower rents and to be more accessible to people with housing vouchers.

The bright note of the whole study, though, is that a large majority of neighborhoods in both cities saw little or no change in neighborhood crime as a result of relocated public housing residents moving in.

But those neighborhoods that did see changes are cause for some changes in the way housing authorities think about their relocation programs. The authors suggest policies that could make more housing available to voucher holders through required participation in voucher programs, better coordination with law enforcement in areas receiving relocated households, and, most importantly, rules that limit voucher use in areas with already high rates of vouchers use.

The connections between public housing, publicly subsidized housing and crime are intricate. This study hasn't untied that knot completely, but its examination of these two case studies offers real insight into ways that crime can be deterred or even reduced.

Top image: Aperture51/ Shutterstock.com

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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