Public Housing and Crime Research Paper

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Since the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiated programs to address the shortage of low-income housing in the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the provision of housing assistance to the needy has taken a variety of forms from high-density project-based developments to smaller scale scattered-site complexes and tenant-based voucher assistance. Regardless of form, central concerns around the association between low-income, subsidized housing and local patterns and trends in crime tend to dominate the public imagination. The extant research shows a moderately strong positive relationship between the location of public housing projects and crime hotspots in urban centers. Some studies identify a distance-decay effect whereby rates of delinquency, crime, and violence diminish with distance from the housing complex whereas other research finds crime and violence to be high but relatively contained within the project. There is additional evidence suggesting that residence in public housing can elevate both levels of offending for young male inhabitants and risk of criminal victimization for all tenants. To remediate the concentration of poverty and elevated crime risks associated with large-scale public housing projects located in major American cities, various federal initiatives, including Section 8, MTO, and HOPE VI programs, have gained support in recent decades. Current controversies over the importation of crime into destination communities, ostensibly at the hands of former project residents, serves as a new and promising avenue of scholarly research.

Crime And Public Housing

Scholarly literature investigating the relationship between densely concentrated public housing and crime provides considerable evidence of at least some positive association at both the neighborhood and individual levels-of-analyses. First, there is a moderately strong relationship between the location of public housing developments and crime hotspots in urban areas, although the size of the effect varies by the scale of housing and the number and type of control variables included in the analysis (Galster et al. 2002; McNulty and Holloway 2000; Suresh and Vito 2007). Second, opportunities for involvement in gang violence and drug sales, among other kinds of offending, have been found to be more readily available to youth who reside in public housing developments, compared to those who live outside (Popkin et al. 2000; Venkatesh 2000). In fact, the same youth report reductions in criminal involvement after leaving public housing; for example, arrests for violent crime and, in particular, robbery decline by half after juveniles move from project-based public housing into low-poverty neighborhoods (Ludwig et al. 2001; see also Kling et al. 2005a). Finally, public housing residents experience elevated levels of criminal victimization relative to their nonpublic housing counterparts, prompting significant and credible fear of crime (Griffiths and Tita 2009; Holzman et al. 2001; Kling et al. 2005b). Taken together, these findings suggest that twentieth century federal housing policy effectively anchored the poor in highly dangerous environments and isolated them from the economic opportunities that traditionally serve as the building blocks of social and residential mobility.

Part of the rationale for recent shifts away from project-based toward scattered-site and especially tenant-based housing assistance is founded on the premise that the dispersion of public housing tenants across city neighborhoods will deconcentrate urban poverty and dilute the negative effects of related social and economic disadvantages. The logic inspiring the construction of new mixed-income communities on the sites of demolished developments is reflected more broadly in tenant-based housing policies. According to the tenant-based narrative, dispersing public housing tenants across more advantaged neighborhoods and attracting market-rate owners and renters to newly constructed units on the sites of former distressed developments should both deconcentrate poverty and reshape cities to reflect a patchwork of thriving mixed-income communities. The resulting redistribution of low-income families is expected to alleviate the deleterious causes and consequences of concentrated poverty (Massey and Kanaiaupuni 1993). As yet, however, little is known about whether and how tenant-based housing assistance affects the redistribution of crime across the city.

A Brief History Of Federal Housing Policy

Federal policies on housing for low-income families in the United States can be distinguished into three distinct eras, each associated with a different ideology and approach to the provision of subsidized housing. Beginning in the 1930s, the first phase “mainly helped two-parent families displaced temporarily by the Depression or in need of housing following the end of World War II” (Wilson 2000, p. ix). More specifically, the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 integrated housing subsidies into the social welfare system and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the G.I. Bill) made homeownership loans and access to subsidized rental housing available to returning veterans. Families resided in public housing units for brief periods as a temporary respite and the mix of tenants varied considerably in economic circumstance as a consequence of flexible income ceilings. In this stage, public housing was conceived of, and operated as, “transitional” housing.

The second era of housing policy, targeting slum clearance and urban renewal, can be traced to the passage of the Housing Act of 1949 supported by President Truman. In this stage, extremely low-income families, many of whom were headed by single mothers, were dislocated from economically disadvantaged crime-ridden neighborhoods marked for slum clearance to high-density public housing developments. In light of the growing population in need of low-income housing, local Housing Authorities in major US cities lowered income ceilings to meet housing demand for the most economically destitute. Thus, eligibility requirements for, and accessibility to, project-based housing tightened considerably. Critics of this second stage of housing policy contend that project-based public housing contributed to a host of urban problems including the concentration of extreme poverty in neighborhoods with public housing, the social and physical isolation of public housing tenants, ineffective and inefficient management of funds for regular maintenance of existing public housing structures, vulnerability to the infiltration of gangs in developments, and elevated levels of crime and violence in public housing communities (Fagan and Davies 2000; Griffiths and Tita 2009; Popkin et al. 2000; Venkatesh 2000). These developments no longer served as a temporary or transitional stopgap, but instead stranded extremely poor residents in rapidly deteriorating social and physical environs. According to critics, the strict eligibility requirements likewise served as disincentives toward self-sufficiency and indirectly encouraged intergenerational tenancy.

Opposition to the siting of these developments was vociferous in well-organized communities of homeowners who feared erosion in property values and the influx of crime (Galster et al. 2002; Santiago et al. 2003). As such, large-scale, high-density public housing developments tended to be clustered within less desirable areas of major cities, where opposition was weak or nonexistent. Indeed, various court decisions over the past few decades, including Thompson v HUD (1994), confirm that cities like Baltimore, “with the approval of HUD, acted in concert over many decades to create a deeply segregated system of public housing, with project siting decisions largely driven by community opposition in white neighborhoods, in the context of a central city housing authority with limited jurisdiction over housing outside its own city limits” (Poverty & Race Research Action Council 2005, p. 1). In locating projects in close proximity to one another, tenants were physically isolated from basic amenities by major thoroughfares, were racially and economically segregated, and were socially marginalized from their nonsubsidized counterparts.

Amid mounting concerns over the physical deterioration of buildings and infrastructure, substantial health and safety concerns surrounding the disrepair of tenant units and semipublic spaces (especially hallways, stairwells, and elevator shafts), security concerns cultivated by gangs and gang-related violence, police “sweeps” and “swarms” that represented civil liberties violations, the mismanagement of resources that undermined public trust, and intense fear of crime among residents that thwarted collective efforts at informal social control, a new era of federal public housing policy has once again transformed the administration of housing assistance in the United States (Popkin et al. 2000; Venkatesh 2000). Beginning in 1961, an addition of Section 23 to the Housing Act (entitled the Leased Housing Program) allowed qualified low-income renters to reside in privately owned apartment buildings maintained by their local Housing Authority. The building’s owner would receive some portion of the market rent from the tenant and the remainder from the Housing Authority itself. In the past 20 years, the shift away from project-based assistance toward tenant-based assistance in the form of alternative programs like Section 8 housing (or, more recently, Housing Choice Vouchers) has grown markedly with the introduction of programs like Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) and Moving to Opportunity (MTO).

In 1992, HUD unveiled its HOPE VI vision, originally known as the Urban Revitalization Demonstration (Katz 2009). The blueprint for revitalizing public housing communities under this program would center on a series of major reforms suggested in The Final Report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. First, the Commission recognized the need for capital investment in rehabilitating and modernizing public housing stock that had fallen into disrepair, but was not beyond salvaging. Second, the Commission recommended demolishing the 86,000 “severely distressed” public housing units in which residents: (a) lack ready access to social services, support programs, and employment opportunities; (b) live in physically deteriorated buildings; (c) suffer from formal and informal mismanagement of the environment; and (d) reside in developments and neighborhoods marked by excessive crime, drug crime, and violent crime rates relative to the citywide averages. Finally, the Committee emphasized the necessity of access to social services, employment opportunities, and relocation support for those displaced from distressed public housing projects slated for demolition.

Cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York – areas in which some of the most distressed public housing developments are located – have been extremely active in realizing the most recent re-visioning of federal housing assistance policy. In various ways, local Housing Authorities in these and other urban centers have aggressively pursued HOPE VI revitalization grants to demolish severely distressed public housing developments, participated in the Moving to Opportunity program which offered Section 8 housing vouchers and housing counseling to 4,600 families who volunteered to relocate to neighborhoods with less than 10 % in poverty (Briggs et al. 2010), and explored ways to expand access to Housing Choice Voucher programs. This movement away from project-based assistance toward tenant-based assistance is intended to benefit public housing residents by offering mobility out of highly disadvantaged crime-ridden communities while, at the same time, serving to deconcentrate poverty, “cool” crime hotspots in urban areas, and encourage the establishment of mixed-income communities.

Crime And Project-Based Developments

Both qualitative and quantitative studies on crime in and around large and densely populated public housing projects have shown elevated levels of property crimes, violent crimes, and drug-related offenses, even compared to surrounding and generally disadvantaged neighborhoods (Griffiths and Tita 2009; Kling et al. 2005b; Popkin et al. 2000; Venkatesh 2000; Weatherburn et al. 1999). Griffiths and Tita (2009) demonstrate, for example, that distressed public housing complexes in Southeast Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Watts have markedly higher homicide rates relative to surrounding disadvantaged neighborhoods. In some cases, the high concentrations of crime on public housing properties have been shown to diffuse outward from those developments; McNulty and Holloway (2000) find evidence of distance-decay “spread effects” of crime from public housing developments in Atlanta, GA, to the surrounding neighborhoods and Fagan and Davies (2000) report a significant concentration of violent crimes within a 200 yard radius of public housing in Brooklyn, NY. From these patterns, it is clear that crime is concentrated in and around the sites of high-density public housing in major cities. Even when distance-decay effects are identified, however, researchers cannot conclude that public housing residents are necessarily responsible for the elevated crime in the neighborhoods surrounding their developments (Griffiths and Tita 2009).

Although some studies show disparities in offending behavior between public housing residents and their nonpublic housing counterparts, these differences are generally not large. For example, Ireland and colleagues (2003) find that offending rates for youth in public housing in Rochester, NY, are not statistically different from the offending rates of their counterparts outside of public housing, yet public housing youth in Pittsburgh exhibit somewhat higher rates of violent offending. Kids who moved from public housing developments to low-poverty neighborhoods as part of the Moving to Opportunity program were shown to reduce their offending behavior (Ludwig et al. 2001). Nevertheless, scholars have difficulty distinguishing selection effects from causal effects when differences arise (Sampson 2008). That is, it is not clear whether crime-prone individuals are allocated to public housing (Weatherburn et al. 1999) akin to a selection effect or whether the architectural and design features of public housing projects, including physical size and the number of apartments sharing common entries, simply create more opportunities to offend for both local and nonlocal residents (Newman 1972).

On the whole, research suggests that levels of crime in public housing can be explained less by the criminality of tenants and more by the criminogenic opportunities inherent in the design and management of these developments. Public housing is a “crime attractor” such that it provides access to a “mass of prospective victims and/or erode[s] the collective efficacy of the neighborhood” (Galster et al. 2002, p. 291). Indeed, the literature has clearly established that victimization risk is significantly higher for residents of public housing relative to those who reside in private market housing and, therefore, neighborhood crime problems differentially burden public housing tenants (Dunworth and Saiger 1994; Griffiths and Tita 2009; Raphael 2001). Combined, the extreme concentration of poverty as a consequence of the spatially proximate siting of developments, the physical and social isolation of residents, and low levels of formal and informal social control are significant contributors to the elevated rates of crime and violence in housing developments.

Crime And Scattered-Site Developments

Scattered-site supportive housing, which is term typically used to describe developments with fewer than 15 units, can take the form of small apartment buildings purchased by a local Housing Authority, group homes, homeless shelters, or other small-scale subsidized housing for special needs populations such as the elderly, the infirm, substance abusers, or those suffering from mental disease or defect. Such housing has little effect on property values in the surrounding neighborhoods (Hogan, 1996). Moreover, residents in scattered-site housing report similar neighborly interactions, willingness to give and receive aid from neighbors, and embeddedness in the local community as do residents of clustered public housing (Kleit 2001). In the very few studies that have specifically examined the effects of scattered-site supportive housing on neighborhood crime trends, the authors find virtually no evidence of an increase in neighborhood crime after the opening of these small-scale subsidized developments (Galster et al. 2002, 2003; Santiago et al. 2003). The single exception is the finding of a statistically significant increase in total crime and violent crime within 500 ft of supportive housing sites in Denver, CO, but only for slightly larger developments that housed more than 53 residents (Galster et al. 2002). Therefore, the introduction of scattered-site developments into neighborhoods does not appear to increase proximate crime rates, particularly when these buildings are less dense and located in low-poverty areas with preconstruction levels of crime that approximate citywide averages.

Crime And Tenant-Based Housing

Current literature on tenant-based housing assistance suggests that relocating from densely populated high-rise public housing to voucher-subsidized private rentals has null or positive individual-level effects on children and adults, particularly among those who participated in the MTO Demonstration. For example, adolescent involvement in violent offending tends to decline after a move (Kling et al. 2005a), MTO children attend schools with higher test scores and pass rates, MTO parents report improvements in physical and mental health as well as reduction in stress, and adults perceive their new neighborhoods as safer (Goering et al. 2003).

Outcomes for HOPE VI families are more mixed. For example, Clampet-Lundquist (2010) finds that concerns over crime and perceptions of neighborhood safety change, but do not necessarily diminish, among families relocated from distressed public housing developments. More specifically, even those voucher recipients taking up residence in lower crime neighborhoods report fear as a consequence of the loss of social ties and lack of “physical and social protections” that had been available in their previous public housing projects. Indeed, residents perceive themselves to have been more physically secure from violent crime when they resided in upper-floor apartments of high-rises compared to the single-family homes in their new neighborhoods (ClampetLundquist 2010). Residents who personally observed offending in the previous development also tended to know the perpetrators. Consequently, the anonymity of destination neighborhoods increases residents’ insecurities and perceptions of risk.

Some research illustrates that short-term gains in educational benefits for children of voucher recipients are not borne out in the long term (DeLuca and Dayton 2009) and others find few positive or negative effects of mobility on student achievement (Jacob 2004). Part of the explanation for these null effects is related to the characteristics of receiving neighborhoods. According to Jacob (2004, p. 251), “a large proportion of families did not take advantage of the relocation opportunity provided by public housing closings to move to a substantially different neighborhood, and even those children who did move to substantially better neighborhoods did not end up in significantly better schools.”

The move to tenant-based assistance and related housing mobility programs has triggered much research on the welfare of and outcomes for affected families, but less attention is focused on how the in-migration of voucher recipients affects conditions in the receiving neighborhoods. In one of the few studies on this topic, Suresh and Vito (2007) suggest that the high assault rates characteristic of densely populated neighborhoods comprised of large-scale public housing developments in Louisville, KY, are gradually displaced into the destination neighborhoods of housing voucher recipients over time. The authors intimate that assault hotspots shift in a pattern consistent with the relocation of residents, particularly when the destination neighborhoods are low-income areas. Based on their study, however, Suresh and Vito (2007) cannot determine whether the victims and offenders involved in assaults in destination communities are actually voucher recipients. In a more recent attempt to disentangle how the inmigration of voucher recipients affects neighborhood crime rates, Van Zandt and Mhatre (2009) arrive at a different conclusion. They suggest that rather than bringing crime with them, voucher families’ residential choices are constrained to higher crime neighborhoods in Dallas, TX. Consequently, any relationship between the presence of voucher recipients and neighborhood crime rates is driven by inadequate options for the use of vouchers in safer and more affluent neighborhoods.

Key Controversies

Two controversies presently dominate the literature on public housing and neighborhood crime patterns. The first is a theoretical question that situates researchers into one of two camps – those who subscribe to “types of people” explanations for aggregate levels and patterns in crime and those who subscribe to “types of places” explanations. Whether one views changes in crime rates as a function of changes in the residential population or the characteristics of place that attract offenders to the environs influences how such changes are interpreted. Second, the move to tenant-based housing assistance has spawned questions and concerns over both the consequences for destination neighborhoods and the restrictions on residential opportunities for Housing Choice voucher recipients. These respective controversies are discussed in turn below.

For those who subscribe to the types of people model, changes in crime rates that coincide with shifts in the demographic and socioeconomic composition of neighborhoods can be attributed to the criminality of newcomers. More specifically, when dangerous people move into a new area, law-abiding residents become easy targets for victimization. Rosin’s (2008; but see Briggs and Drier 2008) controversial Atlantic Monthly article, suggesting that increases in neighborhood crime rates were associated with the movement of subsidized families (i.e., Housing Choice Voucher recipients) into the community, intimated that former public housing residents were “criminals.. .penetrating once-safe suburban neighborhoods” in Memphis, Tennessee (Van Zandt and Mhatre 2009, p. 1). Were it accurate, the speculation that those receiving tenant-based housing assistance are somehow more prone toward criminal activity than are market-rate tenants could be said to represent a “direct link” between subsidized housing and crime (Galster et al. 2002).

By contrast, “types of places” explanations for neighborhood crime trends focus on how neighborhood conditions undermine collective efforts to control public space and provide opportunities for offending. These socially disorganized and “criminogenic” environments are vulnerable to crime because there is little formal guardianship, efforts to generate social control are ineffective, and the communities lack collective efficacy. Importantly, offenders need not be local residents. In this case, scholars treat changes in levels and patterns of crime as contextual effects, in lieu of assuming that residents in high crime neighborhoods are responsible for the offenses that occur there. Here, the link between subsidized housing and neighborhood crime rates is “indirect” and public housing residents “may [simply] be more difficult for the community to enlist as… instruments of collective efficacy” (Galster et al. 2002, p. 293).

The second controversy presently unresolved in the literature involves the freedom with which Housing Choice voucher recipients can select destination neighborhoods. Under the logic of tenant-based assistance programs, residents ostensibly experience expanded choice in residential location such that they can choose affordable private rental units in lower poverty neighborhoods, all across the city. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that voucher recipients reside in rental units that are at or below HUD-determined Fair Market Rents. One of the standard performance indicators for local Housing Authorities is related to their implementation of “policies to encourage voucher holders to search outside of areas of poverty and minority concentration and to encourage owners of units in lower poverty or minority areas to rent to voucher holders” (Devine et al. 2003, p. 25). Voucher recipients’ choices are restricted, however, by the preferences of private landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. And, unfortunately, landlord participation itself may be conditioned by the characteristics of the neighborhood and its desirability for market-rate renters and homeowners. For example, Wyly and DeFilippis (2010, p. 65) maintain that

landlords participate only if the mix of benefits and drawbacks (stability of occupancy and rental income, vs. rules and paperwork) is better than the private rental market in the neighborhood; there has always been concern that the shift to vouchers will simply reconcentrate assisted households into a new set of bad neighborhoods.

Unlike the Moving to Opportunity Demonstration, which relocated public housing families into very specific and advantaged neighborhood contexts, the HCV program relies on a looser set of conditions, dependent on private landlords’ willingness to rent to HCV holders and inclusionary zoning policies (where these county and municipal zoning ordinances exist).

On the whole, voucher recipients make short-distance moves to neighborhoods in which concentrated poverty and residential racial segregation are only slightly lower than their previous housing project (Wang and Varady 2005), although the long-term outcomes are far superior when families receive substantial housing relocation counseling and are placed in socioeconomically prosperous neighborhoods (as was the case for those who participated in the Gatreaux and MTO programs; see Keels et al. 2005). Indeed, the deconcentration of poverty expected to result from tenant-based housing assistance policies that disperse low-income residents to subsidized private rental units will be undermined if voucher recipients tend to reconcentrate in new neighborhoods. In one of few studies examining this issue, spatial econometric models of HCV recipients’ destination neighborhoods in New York City show

no support for the claim that tenant-based vouchers promote poverty deconcentration. Even after accounting for racial segregation and spatial autocorrelation, vouchers have a stronger link to local poverty rates than all other types of federal low-income housing assistance – including the muchaligned category of traditional public housing (Wyly and DeFilippis 2010, p. 82).

If crime rates are already higher and socioeconomic conditions are already disadvantaged in the destination neighborhoods of HCV recipients, it would be fallacious to assume that an influx of HCV families is responsible for changes in neighborhood crime.

There is undoubtedly a complex relationship between public housing and crime that defies easy explanation. Historically, crime and violence rates tended to be exceptionally high in densely concentrated high-rise and garden-style developments, spawning NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition to siting decisions. From this relatively consistent empirical relationship between crime and the location of public housing developments in American cities, however, scholars cannot conclude that public housing residents are necessarily more dangerous or inherently more likely to be involved in offending than their nonpublic housing counterparts. Instead, the physical architecture of these developments and the failure of local housing authorities to adequately maintain the units, buildings, and premises helped to undermine collective efficacy, social control, and social capital that is necessary to forestall crime and protect the public space. With the transformation in housing policy from largely project-based to predominantly tenant-based assistance, new questions about the fate of former residents’ destination neighborhoods are expected to gain attention in the criminological literature.


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