Public Housing Relocations a Modest Success So Far, Say Scholars

5.3.2012 | Many people have claimed that the demolition of public housing high-rises in metro areas across the country has led to a crime wave in new neighborhoods. The Atlantic Monthly started the ball rolling with its misleading article about Memphis in 2008. But recent research by the Urban Institute, which we blogged about here, says they’ve got the story wrong.

They find that crime in neighborhoods where many public housing residents have moved is not as high as projections would have it. The backdrop to these findings is a significant decline in crime city-wide in metros such as Atlanta and Chicago.  Susan Popkin, a scholar at the Urban Institute, told an audience in Chicago at an Institute for Policy Research (IPR) seminar that the findings point to the very positive effects of the tear-down, as far as crime goes.

While crime certainly did not spike in neighborhoods where public housing residents moved, Popkin and others noted, the moves were not always easy on families.  Young men in particular are more likely to be victimized in the new neighborhoods. In addition, the neighborhood’s “collective efficacy” is often challenged. The ability of neighbors to monitor kids, keep track of each other, among other things, changes with an influx of newcomers.

As Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins reported, the housing vouchers that high-rise public housing families received after their buildings were torn down were in theory designed to help them find apartments in lower-poverty neighborhoods.  However, her interviews show that this is often not the case, for several reasons.

Families, she said, tend to look first for a higher-quality apartment rather than a lower-poverty neighborhood. The families are used to keeping their children indoors to protect them from the dangers outside, so a bigger apartment with better features is often more important than the neighborhood itself.  The families also tend to opt for lower-crime neighborhoods over lower-poverty neighborhoods.  Landlords also frequently don’t want to rent to the families, which limits their choices. And for many, moves are a reaction to something sudden: a fire, the ceiling caves in, or the two-flat is sold by the owner. There’s not a lot of time to think and plan, and many families just take the next best unit down the block.

To date, many of the families who received vouchers have tended to move to highly segregated neighborhoods. Two-thirds of African American voucher-holders in Chicago are living in neighborhoods where 90% of the residents are African American, according to DeLuca.

This continued segregation still matters for a number of reasons. Segregation exacerbates income inequalities and school differences, and child cognitive development is influenced by high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, Lincoln Quillian, professor of sociology at Northwestern, told the audience at the IPR seminar. Segregation cements systematic gaps in opportunity. It’s not important that someone live next to a white person, he said. Rather, the effects of segregation arise from the effects of concentrated poverty, poor schools, higher crime and other elements of the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods with higher levels of crime also carry a scar. Crime and victimization mark families and children in many ways. People who live in high-crime environments are more likely to witness a violent crime or know someone who has been victimized, which can profoundly shape one’s outlook on the world. Fear of crime can lead individuals to withdraw from their communities and live more sheltered and isolated lives. Finally, a growing number of studies are finding that exposure to crime, and especially violence, can heighten stress in children and lead to lower cognitive test scores and diminished performance in school.

High rates of incarceration in neighborhoods also removes large numbers of young adults—fathers, in particular—from the community, disrupting social networks, breaking up families, and weakening local institutions.

All of these factors point to the need for more services and supports of families before, and after, they move to new neighborhoods, the presenters each stressed. DeLuca pointed to the more positive results in Baltimore, where counseling and supports are more robust. There, families are moving to less segregated and lower-poverty neighborhoods than in other cities.

We’ll know more about what works and how families are faring as these and other scholars continue to track public housing residents. IPR scholar Dan Lewis, for example, will be interviewing and tracking the movements of residents in one of the last remaining large-scale public housing developments in Chicago. And DeLuca will continue her in-depth interviews with families who have moved as well. These interviews add insight to the numbers, and are invaluable to our continued understanding of how public policy affects urban resident’s lives and shape metro areas more broadly.


photo credit: David Schalliol 


One Response to Public Housing Relocations a Modest Success So Far, Say Scholars

  1. Bill Andivey says:

    Your focus on segregation is misplaced. The term segregation is used when the action is forced. When the action is voluntary, the term is separation. From Wiki: “Generally, a situation that arises when members of different races mutually prefer to associate and do business with members of their own race would usually be described as separation or de facto separation of the races rather than segregation.”
    It’s an important distinction, because it represents choice. People who choose to live in an area dominated by their own race can not be said to be segregated.