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Public Housing Demolition Lowered Overall Crime, New Study Says

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In 2010, a moving van helped residents out of the last tower of Cabrini-Green, in Chicago.
In 2010, a moving van helped residents out of the last tower of Cabrini-Green, in Chicago.

Chicago's decade-long effort to move people out of its infamous public housing towers and into low-rise neighborhoods has long produced divided reactions. The towers of Cabrini-Green are gone, but until now, nobody really had a good idea whether their former residents currently live in similarly violent environments.

In 2008, a much-discussed Atlantic article by Hanna Rosin, "American Murder Mystery," ignited a fierce debate by suggesting former public housing residents were spreading crime throughout Memphis, Tenn. Federal policy has in recent years supported dispersing people living in areas of high concentrations of poverty by offering housing vouchers, so the question had national importance.

But instead of what Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, called the "very simplistic analysis" in the Atlantic article, a just-released study co-authored by Popkin with researchers from Emory University suggests that the public housing transformations in Chicago and Atlanta, sometimes cited as a cause for violence, may have actually pushed their cities' overall crime level down.

In Chicago, home to one of the country's largest public housing populations, the study found that the city's "Plan For Transformation" -- which took down the city's public housing superblocks and supertowers -- reduced violent crime citywide by 1 percent compared to what might have happened without it. But there was a striking downside to the transformation: when a neighborhood accepted a high concentration of former public housing residents, crime there didn't decrease as much as it otherwise might have.

"Compared with a similar neighborhood with no relocated households, a neighborhood with a high density of relocated households has a violent crime rate that is 21 percent higher," the report found.

At a conference in Washington, D.C., announcing the study's results, Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, said that overall its findings were a sign that the Plan for Transformation has succeeded.

"Today, 12 years after Chicago took the very bold step of tearing down the high rise islands of poverty," Woodyard said, "it's a model for true revitalization of communities and housing stock, as well as providing families with opportunities in one of America's greatest cities."

"The tear-down of public housing has accelerated the decrease" in crime, he said. In the Chicago neighborhoods immediately surrounding where the towers once stood, violent crime is down 60 percent, property crime was down 49 percent, and gun crime was down 70 percent between 2000 and 2008. Those kinds of numbers are "very significant," Woodyard said.

But Woodyard acknowledged that not all the news from the study, for which the CHA collaborated with the Urban Institute, was good, particularly from the neighborhoods that accepted very high numbers of "relocatees" from the towers.

"Programs this bold and innovative don't happen easily or perfectly," he said. "We learn both from what works and what doesn't work so well. That is the only way progress can be made."

Why crime was up in neighborhoods with high concentrations of former public housing residents wasn't immediately apparent. The study didn't look at, for example, whether the relocatees were the perpetrators or victims of crimes. Michael Rich, an associate professor of political science at Emory who co-authored the report, noted that "these were neighborhoods that were already vulnerable neighborhoods well before the arrival of public housing relocatees."

One former resident of the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago said the study's findings reflected his own family's experience with the end of public housing towers. Tio Hardiman, now the director of violence prevention program CeaseFire Illinois, grew up in the Henry Horner Homes.

"I used to live in a 15 story building, and when the elevators were not working -- which was often, you had to walk up the stairs with your groceries," he remembers.

After he'd left, his mother and younger brother were forced out by a demolition.

"My brother ended up getting up in fights because he was in another neighborhood," Hardiman said. Gang members seeking to maintain their domination over neighborhoods were quick to pick on newcomers.

Still, Hardiman added, while the moves to new neighborhoods were "a sad sight, because we were losing our families and our history ... I must say it did improve the quality of life, because when you stack a lot of poor people up on top of one another, [gangs] try to control the environment."

He endorsed one key suggestion from the study: that cities try to limit how many people from housing projects wind up in any one neighborhood.

"It's a good idea, because then you have people moving to some of these medium-income level communities," he said. "You have different cultures there, so people can expand their horizon."

One official who did not take part in the study, Sandra Henriquez, the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said its findings were limited by the "what-if" nature of the report, which attempted to guess at where crime would have been without the tower demolitions. And she issued a reminder that fears about the arrival of former public housing residents needs to be contextualized within the larger landscape of economic deprivation in urban cores.

"To my mind this is a fair housing issue," she said. "Research tying crime to public housing is really tying crime to economics."

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