"American Murder Mystery" is the sensational headline to a long article in the July-August issue of The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, in which she blames "one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades" for spreading violent crime to the suburbs of Memphis and other cities. Rosin argues that former residents of demolished housing projects who relocated into private apartments and homes using Section 8 rental-housing vouchers are responsible for spikes in crime. Not surprisingly, her article thrilled conservative commentators and bloggers, who crowed "Social Engineers Move Inner City Crime to Suburbs (Developers Delighted!)," "Another Liberal Fantasy Exposed," and "[Liberals] have exported serious crime to previously blissful suburbs."
Rosin places far too much responsibility on housing policy for the increase in crime. Other factors related to the local economy were almost certainly more significant. Even within the realm of housing policy, the problem is not Section 8 but an outgrowth of conservative indifference to supporting low-income renters rather than a liberal desire to give poor families a better chance.
Section 8 housing vouchers were first created back in the Nixon administration with the goal of reducing rental costs for poor people without building more public-housing projects. Scholars have studied their impact extensively over the years and have generally viewed these vouchers as successful in that limited mission and unconnected to any changes in crime levels.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the more ambitious HOPE VI program was enacted with bipartisan support. HOPE VI sought to demolish crime-infested, dilapidated city housing projects, invest in new mixed-income developments, and enable residents to move to new locations in part with the help of Section 8 vouchers. An important motivating force behind Hope VI was the natural experiment created when a court ruling in the Gautreaux case led to the relocation of a group of low-income Chicago families from high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods to predominantly white, prosperous suburbs. Research by sociologist James Rosenbaum into the economic, educational, and social outcomes among Gautreaux families found that they did much better than members of a comparison group that had remained in impoverished neighborhoods. Gautreaux children were much more likely to graduate high school and to gain decent jobs. They were also less likely to get in trouble.
Unfortunately, later research indicated that Gautreaux's glowing results may have reflected unique features that made the intervention less generalizable than it first appeared. Although participating families were all low-income and were typically headed by single mothers, they were not a random sampling of public-housing residents. Thus, their positive outcomes were only partly due to the Gautreaux intervention. Concerned about bad publicity and the administrative practicalities of a complicated undertaking, officials accepted only families with good credit histories and tenant records to join the new program. Gautreaux families also received extensive help to move to genuinely middle-class, majority-white areas often 15 miles or more from where they had previously lived.
Rosin fails to make clear that HOPE VI, in contrast to the Gautreaux experiment, provided relatively little support for relocation and other assistance to displaced housing-project families. And Republican opposition to housing vouchers over time eroded what limited help was available to those residents. No progressive would ever advocate evicting low-income families from housing projects and then leaving them to fend for themselves without financial or other support. But that is largely what happened not only in Memphis but in many other cities as well. While Gautreaux might meet Rosin's description of a "celebrated antipoverty program," HOPE VI, especially in Memphis, is a scaled-down version that offered all the dislocation with very little of the support.
In the second half of the 1990s, Republicans in control of Congress imposed major cuts in funding for existing housing projects, which accelerated demolitions, while also reducing appropriations for vouchers that would have helped support evicted tenants. Then the Bush administration and the Republican Congress slashed HOPE VI, with funding for the program declining by 80 percent, from $625 million to $100 million, between 1999 and 2008. The result was that only 30 percent to 50 percent of families displaced from torn-down housing projects received vouchers.
Barbara Sard, director of Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that in Memphis, where a series of demolitions displaced an estimated 4,000 families in public-housing residents between 1997 and 2006. Only 149 of the 403 families displaced from the first condemned site initially received Section 8 vouchers. Only 97 still held them by April 2000. Even families lucky enough to receive vouchers received negligible placement assistance or other transitional support. (The Memphis Housing Authority until 2003 was consistently on HUD's list of troubled agencies.)
Nor is it clear that Section 8 voucher families were responsible for higher rates of violent crime in neighborhoods on the periphery of Memphis, as Rosin claims. Her most striking supporting evidence comes in the form of a map showing that clusters of Section 8 voucher recipients lived in neighborhoods where incidents of violent crime were relatively high in 2006. The visual comparison is powerful and invites readers to conclude that voucher holders were causing these crimes. Rosin reports that the husband-wife scholarly team who assembled the map -- criminologist Richard Janikowski and housing specialist Phyllis Betts -- "were amazed -- and deflated -- to see how perfectly the two data sets fit together."
But this apparent "smoking gun" is really just smoke. There is nothing amazing or surprising going on here. Section 8 voucher holders typically migrate to lower-cost housing, which tends to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods where crime is a serious concern. As University of Texas public policy professor Paul Jargowsky, one of the nation's leading experts on concentrated poverty and crime, says: "If you look at cities throughout the country from 1990 to 2000, you see a consistent pattern of increases in poverty in the inner-ring suburbs, while the central cities had declines. Since poverty and crime are correlated, you would expect that inner-ring suburban crime went up and central city crime went down -- but that's only a statistical artifact of changing neighborhood composition rather than a causal effect of poverty on crime. The correlation of crime and poverty, old news to be sure, is the only thing demonstrated by the map in the article. Nobody likes maps more than me, but sometimes they just confuse correlation and causality."
Memphis's weak economy, unmentioned in The Atlantic, almost certainly bears greater responsibility for the spreading violence in a city that has a long history of high crime rates. From 1997 to 2004, Memphis experienced a 14 percent increase in the share of school children living in poverty. Robert L. Wagmiller Jr. of the University at Buffalo found that the percentage of Memphis neighborhoods classified as having low male employment nearly doubled from 6.7 percent to 12.7 percent between 1990 and 2000 -- the highest level among America's 50-largest metropolitan areas. During this time of nationally declining poverty rates, conditions in Memphis markedly worsened.
In a letter to the editor submitted to The Atlantic, Janikowski and Betts themselves acknowledge that forces other than housing policies were mainly responsible for the dispersal of low-income families. They write: "Poverty began to decentralize in Memphis between 1990 and 2000. It is important to acknowledge that neither HOPE VI redevelopment (most of which occurred after 2000) nor vouchers (which did not increase much until after 2000) materially affected what was happening from 1990 to 2000."
It is telling that Rosin provides no data or even anecdotal examples of bad behavior on the part of Section 8 voucher recipients, who are screened for past criminal records and drug use. As evidence that Section 8 families were responsible for the spike in crime, she cites a speculative paper by housing expert George Galster. Galster claims that shifting poverty from highly concentrated neighborhoods to a more diffused pattern might push more locations over "tipping points" that would lead to greater overall crime and other problems throughout a metropolitan area. But other academics have pointed out that little real-world evidence supports Galster's contentions, particularly when so many different factors contribute to urban transformation.
A critique of Rosin's article written by Occidental College's Peter Dreier and MIT's Xavier de Souza Briggs, and signed by numerous urban policy experts, notes other ungrounded assertions in her piece. For example, they write, "Rosin links the reduction of crime in New York City to its rising rents, forcing poor families, using Section 8 vouchers, to move to New Jersey's cities and suburbs, where crime is growing. In fact, fewer than 240 families have used vouchers to move from New York City to New Jersey."
There is a better way to fairly assess the innovative approaches to enabling low-income families to move to less impoverished neighborhoods, a movement in poverty-reduction celebrated by former Sen. John Edwards, among others. That would be to focus on Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a rigorously designed, randomized policy experiment launched as part of the larger HOPE VI effort. MTO was implemented in five cities but not Memphis. As Rosin notes, MTO yielded complex, modest, and sometimes equivocal findings. The results were far smaller than the early promise of Gautreaux but were not the disaster described by Rosin's account.
One important MTO finding was implicit: It is hard to move families out of distressed neighborhoods. Many families offered the opportunity to move chose to stay. Others relocated but then returned to their old neighborhoods. When families did move, many youths remained strongly attached to their old neighborhoods. Most participating families who did move ended up in relatively nearby, majority-minority communities that were safer and modestly more prosperous than their old neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these receiving neighborhoods -- still within the confines of troubled urban school districts -- themselves have relatively low-quality, racially segregated schools with a large proportion of their students eligible for subsidized lunches. Not surprisingly, then, children didn't show much academic improvement.
Despite these disappointing findings, MTO investigators found no evidence that the program increased violent crime, either among participants or within the surrounding neighborhoods. MTO adults and children appeared to benefit from moving out of distressed inner-city neighborhoods. Parents reported that they felt markedly safer and experienced fewer mental-health difficulties. Girls (though not boys) appeared to benefit academically from these moves. The most reasonable interpretation is that MTO failed to radically transform the lives of its participants or of the neighborhoods they moved to but that it was a modestly beneficial intervention that helped many families. Other studies evaluating innovations in housing policy have uncovered many success stories that have the potential to be emulated more broadly: Alameda County's effectiveness in relocating low-income families to the suburbs of Oakland; Montgomery County, Maryland's inclusionary zoning policy; and the low-income housing tax credit's effectiveness in promoting the construction of mixed-income suburban developments in many locations around the country.
One thing we do know: Dilapidated and dysfunctional public housing combined with very high-poverty neighborhood conditions produced huge social harms. Complexes such as Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes demonstrated that warehousing poor people imposes tremendous costs on an entire city, on the projects' immediate neighborhood surroundings, and on residents themselves. Rosin is simply wrong when she writes: "Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy to access social services. And, for better or worse, the fact that the police had the address."
Public-housing complexes have some value to some people, particularly among the aged and disabled. Yet there were few redeeming virtues to the high-rises, other than to keep poor people out of sight and out of mind. Tearing down projects that massively concentrated poverty, joblessness, and crime and helping poor people move to more economically integrated neighborhoods was the right idea. That some cities, short of funds and imagination, haven't succeeded should not discredit the idea.