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Study examines public housing changes and crime

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | April 25, 2012

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The Atlanta-based research team at a housing development site. From left to right: Moshe Haspel, director of research and evaluation at OUCP; Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science; Michael Rich, associate professor of political science; Lance Waller, chair of biostatistics at Rollins School of Public Health. (Not pictured: Elizabeth Griffiths, now at Rutgers University.) Emory Photo/Video.

When Atlanta and Chicago launched plans to demolish distressed, high-crime public housing developments — among the nation's most comprehensive housing reform in the last decade — the transformation begged a question.

By relocating thousands of public housing residents as blighted developments were being dismantled, were problems that can accompany poverty transferred, creating new pockets of crime?

Michael Rich, associate professor of political science and director of Emory's Office of University-Community Partnerships, and a team of Emory researchers, joined Susan Popkin, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, in an intensive study of the issue.

Their research findings, released as a policy brief by the Urban Institute, show that crime rates in Atlanta and Chicago declined through most of the past decade, particularly in areas where public housing was demolished.

In fact, a majority of neighborhoods absorbed relocated public housing residents with no adverse effects on crime rates. However, the study also indicated that crime did not fall as sharply in neighborhoods where relocated residents were most concentrated. In both cities, these tended to be regions already vulnerable to high crime and poverty levels prior to the relocations.

Emory Report spoke with Rich about the findings, which have drawn national attention:

How did you become involved in this study?

At the time this opportunity came along, we were completing a HOPE VI federal housing evaluation for the Atlanta Housing Authority's (AHA) McDaniel Glenn revitalization, located in the Mechanicsville neighborhood near the Braves stadium. We discussed the Urban Institute Study with the AHA and they were very interested and excited to be a part of it.

The study sprang, in part, from a 2008 Atlantic magazine article that ignited a national policy debate. Why?

An article called "American Murder Mystery" made the argument that crime went up in the new neighborhoods that former public housing residents moved into, establishing a causal connection. We did not think those statements were on firm enough ground empirically and wanted to look more systematically at the issue.

We selected Atlanta and Chicago, the two cities in America with the most extensive (public housing) transformations, to see if there was an effect outside of Memphis. We looked at an eight-year data set in Atlanta and a nine-year data set in Chicago. And we looked at the relationship between crime and relocated public housing residents on a quarterly basis, a much more systematic manner than the Atlantic article.

Why was it important to examine this issue now?

Over the past 20 years, housing assistance in the United States has undergone a profound transformation. Momentum for the poverty de-concentration strategy is continuing to pick up speed; more and more cities are exploring it. There also continues to be chatter in cities across the country about former public housing residents moving into neighborhoods and “pulling them down," but there's not a lot of hard, longitudinal, systematic evidence to show these changes in neighborhood conditions can be traced directly to public housing relocations.

What did your research show?

We did not find the pattern that Memphis reported in either Atlanta or Chicago. Overall, in both cities, we found that crime actually went down. In Atlanta, there was a citywide reduction in property crime and violent crime. In Chicago, there was a reduction in violent crime and a small increase in property crime.

When you look at destination neighborhoods, once you reached a certain concentration (of relocated households), there were some differentials. But those neighborhoods where there were statistically significant increases in crime were already vulnerable neighborhoods prior to the relocations. We did not find crime rates spiraling up in neighborhoods that were already stable. That's not to say there were no isolated instances. There might have been a blip here or there, but over a nine-year period, there were no systematic differentials.

What we're not doing is attributing the smaller decline in crime in some neighborhoods to the arrival of public housing residents. On average, there are certain types of neighborhoods where crime didn't go down as sharply as it might have. Are there other underlying factors that might account for that? In Memphis, they were jumping to a conclusion that crime was up because of the influx of housing voucher recipients. But it could go the other way. Housing voucher recipients may have been attracted to high crime neighborhoods because housing was less expensive.

What contributed to the overall decrease in crime rates?

We did not directly examine this in our study. Other research has attributed the decline in crime in major cities to things like community policing strategies and the incorporation of technology into crime fighting. A big part of our study period was a relatively robust period of economic growth, along with some demographic changes.

What are the implications of this research? Where do you go from here?

I think we take it in a couple of directions. Hopefully, it raises awareness of neighborhood dynamics as housing authorities consider public housing transformations. There are things that Atlanta and Chicago learned along the way to improve the relocation process, including a need for broader partnerships with community-based service organizations, particularly in vulnerable neighborhoods and responsible relocation strategies. We also need to examine a broader array of (destination) neighborhood outcomes, not just crime, to look at some of the precipitating factors that may influence the crime differentials.