Most of my work in recent years has focused on how tearing down distressed public housing—the kind of places that blighted residents’ lives and brought decline to the surrounding community—affected the lives of original residents. As I wrote last month, for many, the demolition has meant moving to better housing in safer neighborhoods. But the most vulnerable families require more intensive, long-term support to address the complex challenges that come with deep poverty: poor physical and mental health, long-term disconnection from the labor market, substance abuse, domestic violence, and involvement in the criminal justice system.
In our latest project, we take on the other side of the story: what has tearing down distressed public housing meant for the neighborhoods where these families have moved? Has it, as many popular accounts have asserted, brought crime and disorder to other communities? We examine this question by looking at the effects of public housing transformation in Chicago and Atlanta. In the 1990s, both cities faced serious problems with their public housing, and both launched citywide transformation efforts with the goal of demolishing their worst developments and replacing them with new, mixed-income communities. As part of the relocation effort, many former public housing residents in both cities received Housing Choice [Section 8] Vouchers and moved to private-market housing.
This issue reaches beyond Chicago and Atlanta. In 2008, a highly controversial Atlantic Monthly article claimed that HOPE VI—specifically, relying on vouchers to relocate residents in private rental housing—was to blame for rising crime in Memphis. The article drew a grim picture of rapidly increasing crime in previously safe Memphis communities, then used a correlational analysis that associated crime incidents with the movement of voucher recipients to make the case that HOPE VI was responsible for these problems. The article ignited a national debate about the impact of housing vouchers on crime, with many researchers and advocates arguing that the Atlantic analysis was too simplistic, blaming voucher holders unfairly for broader trends. Yet, until recently, no systematic efforts have tried to understand whether there is any evidence to support these fears or if they simply represent negative stereotypes of public housing residents.
Our new research rigorously investigates whether relocating public housing residents into private-market housing affected crime rates in Chicago and Atlanta. We find that the relationship between crime rates and relocated public housing households moving into the private market is complex. Crime declined dramatically in both cities throughout the 2000s—even in neighborhoods that received many relocated households. Further, the transformation efforts led to substantial decreases in crime in neighborhoods (which we define as census tracts) where the Chicago Housing Authority and Atlanta Housing Authority demolished public housing communities. This decline contributed to a small but significant net citywide decrease in violent crime.
However, the picture is not entirely positive. Some neighborhoods in both cities have experienced problems associated with concentrations of relocated households: once the number of relocated households reaches a certain threshold, crime rates, on average, decrease less than they would have if these families had not moved there. It’s important to note that this finding does not tell us why this effect occurs—whether the relocated residents are victims, offenders, or somehow reflect other changes in their new neighborhoods that affect crime rates.
This complex picture tells us that any future relocation efforts need to learn from Chicago and Atlanta’s experiences, particularly the responsible relocation strategies both housing authorities developed over time. But it also tells us that we need to ensure that we never again concentrate so many families in the kinds of terrible environments that damage so many lives.