Housing Choice Vouchers and Neighborhood Crime Research Paper

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The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) provides relocation opportunities for low-income families to find better places to live. In examining why HCVP, participants want to relocate research generally focuses on the “pull” factors of why low-income families want to relocate. Most reasons for relocation are related to some benefit the new neighborhood offers, such as access to better schools, jobs, housing stock, and other amenities to improve their lives. Often overlooked are the “push” factors that drive residents from a neighborhood. Much research on these push factors has focused on life-course changes in family structure, career options, or some financial gain. One significant push factor that uniformly effects residential satisfaction is how safe families feel with respect to witnessing or being victims of crime in their neighborhood. Families who use a voucher to relocate are no exception to this concept and have stated across numerous studies that the primary reason for wanting to leave their neighborhood is to escape chronic problems with crime. Numerous studies and reports have documented low levels of residential satisfaction by families in impoverished neighborhoods, primarily driven by violence, drugs, and gangs in the neighborhood. Research across several disciplines is consolidated in this research paper about why families in impoverished neighborhoods want to leave their current residences for new neighborhoods, many of which use vouchers to escape crime.


Many factors known to cause delinquency, social exclusion, antisocial behavior, violence, poor health, and low academic performance in youth come from living in distressed places (Buck 2001; Overman 2002; Friedrichs and Blasius 2003; Musterd et al. 2003; Sharkey 2008). Project-based public housing communities are usually located in places that exhibit a confluence of these factors. Families in these neighborhoods often have little means to escape and must withstand regular exposure to these factors reducing their neighborhood satisfaction in a multitude of ways. While there are family and peer factors that contribute to the prevalence of these factors, simply relocating out of these places can help diminish the negative effects of living in distressed places.

In 1974, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) to financially assist low-income families to relocate to neighborhoods of their choice. In 2010 alone, approximately 2.1 million families received assistance through the program (U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development 2010). The HCVP is a “tenant-based” residential assistance program resulting from the Community Development Act (CDA). Other HUD assistance programs are “project based” and require participants to move to campuses, high-rise complexes, or other centrally located housing. Participants in the HCVP use a voucher to seek rental housing anywhere within the local housing market and pay at least 30 % of their own income toward rent and utilities; the remainder is paid by HUD through a local housing authority. HCVP participants can come from any neighborhood, not just project-based sites. Prior to the HCVP, residential choice for assisted families was limited to a small number of centrally located project-based sites.

Success of the HCVP is contingent on participants’ searching for and finding housing that satisfies program requirements as well as their own preferences. The program’s main intent is to provide access to safe and sanitary housing that must pass housing quality inspections. But HCVP descriptions commonly emphasize neighborhood as much as dwelling. This language implies a dual objective of finding both a dwelling and a neighborhood. With the HCVP, choice of where to live becomes more than just about the quality of housing stock and is inexplicably tied to the neighborhood the dwelling is located within. A key outcome of the HCVP design is that households have a maximized spatial mobility choice in selecting where to live (Winnick 1995). Place, then, is a central factor in the voucher recipient decision-making process, and (Ross 2011) found evidence that HCVP tenants were more likely to look at neighborhoods before housing units.

The growth and popularity of the HCVP is fueled by its distinct advantage in allowing a participant’s locational needs and preferences to become the driving factor in choosing a place to live. As such, low-income families have an impetus for applying to the program to escape the often impoverished places they currently live, particularly when crime is a constant threat to their safety and their children.

Establishing The Idea Of Place For Understanding The HCVP

Place is a central concept to understanding the HCVP. In housing studies, the term “place” often refers to project-based sites. Other social science disciplines also tend to geographically limit the term “place” to an address or nothing larger than a street block, which in geography is usually associated with the concept of “location.” When limited to such small units, the concept of place is constrained to understanding why individuals, families, and households select certain environments to live and leave based on what occurs in that household or on that street. Decisions to move from environmental conditions are seldom limited to that scale. In geography, place is a scalable term that represents a delineated area that is distinguishable from other areas. Under this definition, a “place” could be a room, building, street block, neighborhood, section of a city/ county, metropolitan area, or even a region. Place, whatever the scale, can be used as a framework that is inclusive of a location and its surrounding environment in which to examine individual, peer, and family interaction within a larger geography as part of a complete context.

Locations are focal points within a larger geography that situates where something is positioned or an event occurs. Locations exhibit specific characteristics that make them relatively fixed entities, represented accurately with an X and Y coordinate pair. Environments exert influence on the characteristics of that location contributing to its condition. Change the environment and the characteristics of a location will likely change. Changing a location’s characteristics can also cause the surrounding environment to also change. As such, using locations as unit of analysis can constrain a more complete measurement of individuals, families, or households interactions. A “place” is representative of the scale that captures the influence of conditions and events occurring between a collection of locations in their larger environment.

Neighborhoods form an appropriate definition of place in studies of urban crime as opposed to locations. Neighborhoods matter as “places” that frame the interactions between individuals, peer, and families while accounting for the impact the environment has on them and them on it. Most crime clusters within a larger area than at a single address or set of addresses. Limiting place to such a small area, then, reduces the opportunity to understand the full impact of the neighborhood crime on residential satisfaction. People situate their locations within the larger neighborhood they live in and reference the features, events, and changes that occur within that space on how they feel. As such, separating the location from the neighborhood does not permit the ability to fully measure the factors that makes a resident satisfied with the neighborhood, i.e., the research cannot disentangle internal characteristics from external influences.

Crime is a deeply personal experience for victims. The traumatization associated with crime can stem from both personal victimization but also with place. Residents who witness or hear about crime in their neighborhood are also affected through the transmission of conditions and other events that occur in the neighborhood. Whether victim, witness, or simply “hearing” about crime in the neighborhood negative feelings about place can lead to behavior modification – of which leaving the neighborhood is one – based on anticipated fear of being victimized. This fear does not manifest itself from just incidents in buildings, addresses, street blocks, or a public housing sites, but emerges as product of the location and the larger environment. As such, location will not suffice in understanding crime in place for those using a voucher to relocate. In this research paper, the term “place” refers to the dwelling and the neighborhood unless otherwise specified.

Wanting To Leave The Neighborhood For A Better Place

There are many reasons families relocate. Most reasons are brought on by life-course turning points in family status that entails changes in job opportunities, school quality, housing needs, or desirable neighborhood amenities. But decisions to move can result from factors related to satisfaction with neighborhood conditions (Wolpert 1965; Rossi 1980; Galster 1987; Lu 1999; Basolo and Strong 2002). For low-income families, neighborhood conditions may be more important than life-course events when deciding to apply to the HCVP to relocate. Participants applying to the HCVP program are looking to more often escape negative “life-altering” events that result from living in neighborhoods characterized as socially disorganized (Shaw and McKay 1942).

Social disorganization is the result of concentrated economic disadvantage and social isolation in place. These places are bleak geographies that exhibit higher levels of residential turnover, unemployment, single-headed households, uneducated populace, low quality businesses, poverty, and poor quality housing stock. Social networks and local organizational ties in these places are weak because of collapsed informal neighborhood relationships that leave residents unable to actualize common values – maintenance of a healthy, safe, and attractive residential environment – that contribute to higher levels of crime (Wilson, and Kelling 1982; Sampson and Groves 1989; Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Krivo and Peterson 1996; Sampson et al. 2002; Fagan and Davies 2004; Weisburd et al. 2004). Many HCVP applicants live in these types of neighborhoods.

Across the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the quality of life in many public housing communities severely declined in the form of concentrated poverty (Banks and Banks 2004), resulting in socially disorganized places. Residents of these communities repeatedly cited crime as one of their greatest concerns among numerous neighborhood problems. Crime concerns grew so prominent that in 1989, Congress created the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH) to identify the national extent of the problem. This effort was the result of an earlier HUD study (Jones et al. 1979) that identified a set of indicators to measure the severity of social problems residents in public housing reported. The Commission used four broad areas to measure distress levels in public housing. Violent crime was one of those areas and was the first direct national-level acknowledgement that crime was a critical component of social and economic disadvantage in specific places.

Following the Commission’s report, Lawrence Vale, a prominent scholar on housing issues, wrote a critical piece (1995) on the NCSDPH final report with several discussion points about crime and place. Vale made a key point about the spatial connection public housing developments share with their surrounding environment, noting they were at risk of becoming future problems partly due to their neighborhoods they were situated within. Responding to Vale’s commentary, Jeffery Lines (1995), a consultant on the NCSDPH report, acknowledged crime was one of the most pervasive problems that made public housing residents perceive their neighborhood was severely distressed. These negative feelings toward the neighborhood appeared to be the cornerstone of residential dissatisfaction by most public housing residents and not just within their housing project. Vale’s main argument was that a focus on too small of geographies limited the understanding, measurement, and interventions of crime in public housing. Both Vale and Lines stated that if analyses were limited to such small geographies, the likelihood of revitalizing public housing would not be fruitful because the problem must be solved inclusive of the surrounding neighborhoods.

In 1998, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) produced a report that provided more evidence that neighborhood crime was one of the most important aspects to residents with respect to neighborhood satisfaction. Using six waves of American Housing Survey (AHS) data between 1985 and 1995, BJS statisticians examined resident perceptions of neighborhood crime (DeFrances and Smith 1998). Across all six waves, 25 % of black and 13 % of white public housing respondents cited crime as a problem in the neighborhood where they lived. For overall households, 5 % white and 14 % black reported crime to be a problem. Of the public housing respondents, 18 % (24 % black and 13 % white) perceived crime so “objectionable” that it caused them to consider moving. The authors also used the 1998 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and found that even though crime victimization was the same in public housing as it was outside of public housing (23.8 % vs. 23.4 % respectively), the percentage of residents who expressed the desire to relocate was substantially higher for those in public housing communities. The analysis also revealed that, comparable to crime, black residents had equal concerns about other neighborhood problems, such as disliking neighbors, too many people, and loitering. Central city white households 15 % reported these “people” problems as a neighborhood problem whereas 13 % reported crime as the most pressing problem. While not being able to determine if these reasons were related to concerns of safety, other researches have noted these minor incivilities contribute to perceptions of safety in the neighborhood.

In 1999, Dugan used four waves of the National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) between 1986 and 1990 to examine if victimization prompted neighborhood residents to relocate. Dugan found a 12 % increase in the probability a resident will move after the first victimization is experienced or known. Equally important was the finding that knowledge of criminal offenses outside the neighborhood had no effect on prompting residents to move, indicating the immediate neighborhood affected perceptions of safety that would prompt a consideration to move.

In examining relocation preferences from the Chicago Area Survey Project, Harris (2001) measured black and white preferences in neighborhood relocation and found crime and disorder to be of most concern to neighborhood choices. Specifically, the results showed that residents’ perceptions of “big” crime problems lead to a significant decrease (.40 and .65 standard deviation unit reduction) in residential satisfaction for both whites and blacks, respectively. School quality and neighborhood deterioration were also found to be significant determinants of resident satisfaction.

Basolo and Strong (2002) surveyed residents of low-income neighborhoods in New Orleans as part of a revitalization initiative evaluation and found crime to be the greatest concern for potential home buyers. The authors examined questions that determine both neighborhood and housing satisfaction along several dimensions. Respondents stated their decision to purchase a house in a neighborhood was based on housing condition but safety was the strongest factor, the absence of crime was the most important factor toward being satisfied with the surrounding neighborhood. The authors found that 40 % of respondents who were renters cited poor housing conditions and crime as the primary reasons they would not buy a house in a neighborhood if they had the opportunity.

Hipp (2009) used the American Housing Survey data between 1987 and 1999 in 24 metropolitan areas to identify the determinants of neighborhood satisfaction. He extended the earlier BJS study by conducting a multilevel analysis for individual and neighborhood effects and found that perceived disorder and other social disorganization factors were related to increases in neighborhood dissatisfaction. Overwhelming, perceived crime was an accelerant to being dissatisfied with a neighborhood. A key aspect of Hipp’s study was that he linked the elements of social disorganization with the desirability of neighborhoods.

In 1994 and 1995, several thousand residents in Chicago were surveyed for Project Human Development in Chicago Neighborhood (PHDCN) to examine how families, schools, and neighborhoods affected child and adolescent development (Earls et al. 1995). Numerous survey questions revolved around residential satisfaction, many questions related to crime. One question asked respondents to indicate the reasons they might move. Sixty four percent of respondents listed living in a safer neighborhood as a reason they might move, 62 % cited crime, and 60 % cited drug problems. Wanting to get their children away from bad influences (50.4 %) and lower housing/rental costs (49.9 %) were cited as the next top reasons. All other reasons amounted to less than 35 %. These results indicate crime is a driving factor in residential satisfaction and wanting to relocate.

Surveys of HCVP participants also showed crime was a major determinant of tenant satisfaction. Buron and Patrabansh (2008) examined data from an HCVP customer satisfaction survey and found that respondents rated crime as the most important quality of life factor. Fifty percent of respondents who rated their neighborhood as low quality cited crime as “a big problem,” while other neighborhood conditions were of much less concern. Residents who rated their neighborhood of higher quality also cited crimes as their greatest concern. The correlation between crime and neighborhood rating was 0.62, indicating that perceived neighborhood quality declined with increased perceptions of crime problems. The Voucher Homeownership Assessment (VHA) program also showed that proximity to high-crime areas was among the two main negative features reported to the surveyors (Turnham et al. 2003).

Studies have shown that when given the opportunity to relocate, publically assisted families tend to move into neighborhoods with lower poverty and less crime (Austin et al. 2002; Fauth et al. 2004). Two particular housing initiatives examined the effects of low-income families in severely distressed public housing using HUD vouchers to relocate. The first was the Gautreaux program, a court ordered initiative to remedy racial discrimination in Chicago’s public housing communities. The second was the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment in five cities by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The intent of Gautreaux and MTO was to give public housing residents the option to move to new neighborhood of their choice for the purpose of improving access to opportunity. Participants in both programs stated that crime was one of the most prominent reasons they wanted to relocate (Popkin et al. 2003; Goering and Feins 2003). With MTO an average of 53 % of participants across all five cities cited getting away from drugs and gangs as the most important reason for wanting to move (Goering and Feins 2003). The second most important reason was to get their children into better schools (30 %). Follow-up research on Gautreaux and MTO consistently showed that participants saw improvements in the conditions of their neighborhoods with regard to health, economy, and safety (Varady and Preiser 1998; Katz et al. 2001; Orr et al. 2003; Fauth et al. 2004; Kling et al. 2004; Gilderbloom et al. 2005; Keels et al. 2005; and Briggs et al. 2010). These studies indicated that even after relocation, crime was still a primary determinant of residential satisfaction for HCVP tenants. Long-term positive effects on the participants, however, have shown to be less than desired.

Varady et al. (2001) examined survey and neighborhood-level data across four US cities to determine if counseling led to more successful housing searches by HCVP participants. The authors found that perceived neighborhood safety was the strongest driver (coefficient for safety was 0.315) of housing satisfaction compared to 12 other factors. Distance also played a significant role, with participants wanting to remain in close proximity to their previous neighborhood while simultaneously wanting to move to a new place offering a greater sense of safety. Their findings were consistent with previous studies that found that HCVP participants tended to feel safer after using a voucher to relocate.


Questions about the impacts of the HCVP on neighborhoods are an emerging policy issue. Sadly, little attention is paid to the crime aspect of housing vouchers and voucher mobility even though the evidence presented in this research paper shows it is a major factor in the decision to move. The findings across these studies clearly show that for low-income families, regardless of receipt of rental assistance, crime is a central determinant of participant residential satisfaction.

Fear of crime is often a driving force behind residential dissatisfaction and the need for safety (Gibbs and Hanrahan 1993) that manifests itself in behavior modification. Studies from criminology have shown that the anxiety generated from anticipated victimization prompts neighborhood residents to take protective actions, such as altering daily routines to minimize chances of being victimized, fortifying their homes (Baumer 1980), limiting children’s activities (Kling et al. 2004), avoidance of walking outside (Roman and Chalfin 2008), and moving to a safer place (Skogan 1990; Rountree and Land 1996; Xie and McDowall 2008; Hipp et al. 2009). These behavior modifications clearly connect to the neighborhood and not just the location of their dwelling or street.

The combination of immediate location and the surrounding area is what constitutes place utility, upon which people make decisions to stay or move based on residential satisfaction (Wolpert 1965). Thus, using “place” offers an advantage over the separate use of “location” or “neighborhood” toward understanding of crime and place. The objectives of the HCVP emphasize the place utility concept and exemplify how the program is codependent on both people and place, with residential satisfaction as the link. Success for the HCVP participant is having a better place to live and work and for their children to grow, less fearful of crime. Success for the neighborhood is having residents that contribute to its well-being so that it is a desirable geography for people to live, work, attend school, socialize, and visit. Without place satisfaction, a resident may not contribute to the neighborhood and the neighborhood may not contribute to the resident’s well-being.

The housing literature clearly shows a nexus with the study of crime and place. The thoughts and language used by residents in housing studies reveal that residents see their homes situated within a larger environment that contributes to their sense of satisfaction and safety. The housing literature identifies and discusses many of the same factors and conditions of social disorganization (residential turnover, unemployment, single-headed households, uneducated populace, low quality businesses, poverty, and poor quality housing stock) in project-and tenant-based programs that are used in the study of crime and place in criminology. There is a constant reference to “in and around” in the housing literature and indicates that residents and scholars understand there is an inseparable link between a home and its neighborhood. Housing scholars also use variables that go beyond the demographic structure that environmental criminologists have discussed and used, such as building conditions and values, land use, family structure changes, or business types. These housing scholars, though, do not often include social disorganization factors relevant to the understanding of crime in place. Some criminologists have been using some of these variables to inform the understanding of crime and place. Both criminology and housing scholars could benefit from drawing upon evidence from both disciplines – and in particular, the theories and evidence from geography – regarding the effect of place on safety perceptions and the effect of safety perceptions on choice of place.

Mayor Robert Sabonjian of Waukegan, IL (a town north of Chicago), summed up the common sentiment about Section 8 housing in a local newspaper that highlights the unconscious understanding in policy-making that place is a key aspect to the success of the HCVP. Mayor Sabonjian stated that the problems associated with public housing “are not going to go away by getting rid of one problem building – it’s going to have to be a systemic answer across the city” (Moran 2012). This statement demonstrates the recognition that a wide range of geographies are crucial to any solution to assisted housing. Briggs et al. (2010) stated that the success of relocation programs “hinge” on holders having proximal access to jobs and resources, i.e., the geography of opportunity model (Galster and Killen 1995). Research findings have made it quite clear that residential satisfaction includes the neighborhood, although there remains a debate about what constitutes the geography of a neighborhood (Wilson 2012). The studies presented in this research paper present evidence of the larger role of neighborhoods in residential place satisfaction. Residents of high-poverty neighborhoods and public housing communities are often stuck in places exhibiting classic indicators of social disorganization in which crime is an everyday part of life. The HCVP plays a crucial role in promoting access to places with greater chances for residential satisfaction and socioeconomic opportunity, which are inextricably linked to the absence of crime.

Acknowledgments We would like to thank John Markovic from the Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS) of the US Department of Justice, Paul Joice of the US Department of Housing & Urban Development, Mark Stallo of the Dallas Police Department, and Emma Wilson of Montgomery College for providing valuable comments toward improving the clarity of this research paper. We would also like to thank Sue-Ming Yang for giving us the opportunity to include this work.

The views expressed in this research paper are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the official positions or policies of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development or the US Government.


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