Monday, June 16, 2008

Crime and housing

Warning: this is a long, rambling post. I will try to avoid these in the future, but I suck as my own editor for the present.

A thoroughly depressing article in the Atlantic that is getting lots of attention on numerous blogs makes the argument that destroying public housing and dispersing Section 8 residents makes overall crime worse:
Studies show that recipients of Section8 vouchers have tended to choose moderately poor neighborhoods that were already on the decline, not low-poverty neighborhoods. One recent study publicized by HUD warned that policy makers should lower their expectations, because voucher recipients seemed not to be spreading out, as they had hoped, but clustering together. Galster theorizes that every neighborhood has its tipping point—a threshold well below a 40 percent poverty rate—beyond which crime explodes and other severe social problems set in. Pushing a greater number of neighborhoods past that tipping point is likely to produce more total crime.
Richard Green publishes an email that disputes the central finding of the article, showing that the murder rate in Memphis (where the Atlantic article focuses) hasn't increased in a statistically significant way since the destruction of public housing:
So going from 1996 until today, which is the natural comparison for the effect of project demolition, you have a decrease from 161 to 129. You can slice it many different ways, but my reading is essentially nothing happened.
I read this article over the weekend, and waited to post until today. The Atlantic article makes a pretty convincing demonstration that crime tends to follow Section 8 housing, although this argument is also built around the "tipping point" theory. Even if crime doesn't actually increase, as Green's emailer suggests, the perception of crime is now city-wide, instead of just concentrated in the ghettos.

I'm horribly conflicted about this issue. I have a passionate desire to see Atlanta safe and pedestrian friendly, but I cannot get on board with a policy that just wants to ship poor folks to the suburbs. My advocacy for tearing down public housing often causes arguments with my more liberal friends who are very concerned with what happens to the residents. I usually point to studies showing that most residents are happier in new digs.

I had hoped that a dispersal policy could integrate poverty into the city fabric in a way that made it less cyclical for those in poverty. At the same time, this dispersal was thought to lower crime by preventing the concentrated levels of poverty that encouraged criminal organizing and activity. Turns out this may be wrong.

So what do we do? I don't believe that mandatory sentences do much to deter crime, either. The prison system is all sorts of messed up, for that matter, and makes minor criminals and addicts into real felons.

None of this changes the fact that crime and perceptions of safety are major, major issues for the city of Atlanta. They are issues that will be defining my opinions on the next mayoral race. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't have any new ideas. I don't want to vote for someone who thinks they are "tough on crime" - I need a candidate who actually has a solution. Obviously crime will always exist, but how do we reduce it to a tolerable level?

Is it possible to find what the tipping point number is, and limit Section 8 vouchers per geographical region so that we come in under this tipping point? Is it 20% or 15% poverty rate? 10%? How do we live up to a civic duty that our cities provide housing for all, without
practically inviting crime into our neighborhoods? Is it possible to discuss this issue without hitting all manner of political hot buttons?

One interesting side-note from the Atlantic article regards how simple it can seem to reduce crime. One of the guys that discovered the Section 8/crime relationship started out consulting with the police as a criminologist:
He initially consulted on a program to reduce sexual assaults citywide and quickly made himself useful. He mapped all the incidents and noticed a pattern: many assaults happened outside convenience stores, to women using pay phones that were hidden from view. The police asked store owners to move the phones inside, and the number of assaults fell significantly.
If only it were all that simple...

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