Academic journal article Cityscape

Public Housing Transformation and Crime: Making the Case for Responsible Relocation

Academic journal article Cityscape

Public Housing Transformation and Crime: Making the Case for Responsible Relocation

Article excerpt


The research in this article examines the effect on crime rates of public housing transformation in Atlanta and Chicago, focusing on the neighborhoods receiving households relocated with housing vouchers. Modeling the complex relationship between voucher holder locations and crime, using quarterly data, our analysis found that crime rates fell substantially in neighborhoods with public housing demolition, whereas destination neighborhoods experienced a much lesser effect than popular accounts imply. Nevertheless, on average, negative effects emerge for some neighborhoods with modest or high densities of relocated households compared with conditions in areas without relocated households. Overall, we esamate small net decreases citywide in violent crime over study periods during which crime declined significantly. These findings suggest a need for thoughtful relocation strategies that support both assisted residents and receiving communities.


Chicago and Atlanta are very different cities but, in the 1990s, both faced serious problems with their public housing - distressed, high-crime developments that were damaging residents' lives and contributing to neighborhood decline. By the end of the decade, both cities' housing authorities had used federal HOPE VI1 grants to launch ambitious citywide transformation efforts, with the goal of demolishing their worst developments and replacing them with new, mixed-income communities. Transforming public housing meant relocating thousands of households while the new housing was constructed, a process that often took years and required developing new services to support residents through the process. As part of the relocation effort, many former public housing residents in both cities received housing choice (Section 8) vouchers (HCV) and moved to privatemarket housing; most opted to keep their vouchers and stay in their new neighborhoods rather than return to the new mixed-income communities.

Not surprisingly, the nation's two largest public housing transformation efforts - the Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA's) Plan for Transformation and the Atlanta Housing Authority's (AHA's) Olympic Legacy Program and Quality of Life Initiative (QLI) - generated a variety of concerns, and many affordable housing advocates focused on how former residents fared during the relocation process (Bennett, Smith, and Wright, 2006; Keating, 2001; NHLP et al., 2002). Local politicians and press accounts in these cities and others have also raised questions about whether households receiving vouchers bring crime and disorder to their new communities (Dumke, 2011; Medina, 201 1).

A 2008 Atlantic Monthly article sparked a media controversy by claiming that HOPE VI - specifically, relying on vouchers to relocate residents in private rental housing - was to blame for rising crime in Memphis (Rosin, 2008). The article drew a grim picture of rapidly increasing crime in previously safe Memphis communities and then used an 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 effect of housing vouchers on crime, with many researchers and advocates arguing that the Atlantic Monthly's analysis was too simplistic, blaming voucher holders unfairly for broader trends (Briggs and Dreier, 2008). Until recently, however, no systematic efforts have tried to understand whether empirical evidence supports these fears or if they simply represent negative stereotypes of public housing residents.

Using a panel data set of administrative records from each housing authority and reported Part I crimes at the census tract level for more than 30 quarters in Chicago and Atlanta, our research examines the relationship between crime and relocation from public housing using advanced modeling techniques. The three questions we explore in this article are (1) the degree to which the entrance into a neighborhood of relocated voucher households has a significant effect on crime; (2) whether any detected effect varies according to thresholds in the concentration of relocated households; and (3) the degree to which the transformation efforts affected overall crime, looking at tracts where public housing was demolished and at destination neighborhoods for relocated households. …

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