The great housing experiment that failed
Tearing down the housing projects,
Crime is up, not down
All across the country starting in the 1990s, housing project after housing project was torn down and its poor residents sent out on their own with Section 8 vouchers. The idea was to end the concentration of poverty that supposedly bred crime. In their new neighborhoods, the poor would supposedly acquire the productive habits of the middle class around them.
No one thought the poor would bring crime with them. No one thought the poor would become even more isolated from social service support networks like health care and job training. No one thought that “mixed-income” housing, the great love of reformers, would cause more problems, not less.
The opening paragraphs above are heresy to the politically correct establishment. We would not write them if it were not for a headlined article called “American Murder Mystery” in the July/August 2008 issue of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine (www.theatlantic.com), an article outlining the shape of a new and growing crime explosion across America that it blames on the national experiment to tear down the housing projects.
We would not write these paragraphs if we had not googled for research and found that every study we checked out supported the conclusions of the Atlantic Monthly article. We would not write these paragraphs if we did not have first-hand experience from the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood in Cambridge, which is feeling the growing deleterious effects of locating more and more low-income people in its midst.
For a long time in the 1990s, the big story was falling crime rates, especially in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, which had once been the “twin capitals of violent crime.” Then suddenly came a sharp new rise in crime, sometimes at a rate of 20 percent increase every year. The crime rose not in big cities, but middle-sized cities like Memphis, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri. What some officials noticed was that crime was no longer concentrated in a few areas. It became “all spread out,” except for the inner city, which had been gentrified.
Two researchers in Memphis happened to fall upon the likely cause of the crime rise – probably because they were married to each other. One was a criminologist, the other a housing expert. The criminologist mapped out all the known addresses of violent crime in Memphis. The housing expert mapped out all the section 8 voucher rentals. When they laid one map on the other, “the match was near-perfect.” All the crime areas were covered with dots representing section 8 vouchers. The rest of the city was crime-free.
Now these researchers wondered: Could they convince anyone else of their findings?
Starting back in 1977, families living in housing projects began to be relocated to middle-class suburban neighborhoods with good public schools. If these families could see a different way of life, the middle-class way of life, they could learn to live like the middle class – or so everyone thought.
Eventually, the federal government poured $6.3 billion into a program called HOPE VI, or “Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.” Tens of thousands of public-housing tenants all over the country were leaving the projects and moving to suburbia.
But then the crime rate started to go up in suburbia where they moved. As one former housing project tenant said: “You move from one place to another and you bring the element with you. You got some [people] trying to make it just like the projects.”
It isn’t just a matter of changing where crime occurs. The exodus of the poor to the suburbs creates more total crime and more bad neighborhoods. According to one researcher, if you compare two scenarios – a city split into high-poverty and low-poverty areas and a city dominated by medium-poverty areas – the second scenario is likely to cause more neighborhoods to tip past a point of no return where crime mushrooms and severe social problems set in.
In 2003, the Brookings Institute identified 15 cities where high-poverty neighborhoods had declined the most. Recently, they have turned out to be among the most violent cities in the country, according to FBI data.
It isn’t just a matter of crime. The move to suburbia has not lifted people out of poverty and made them self-sufficient. In general, researchers find no health, education or employment benefits.
One of the most surprising findings is that the poor who moved to suburbia “miss the old community” that had developed at the projects. “For all its faults, there was a tight network that existed [in the projects]…Have we underestimated the role of support networks and overestimated the role of place?”
Putting poor minorities and middle-class whites together does not automatically integrate them. Moreover, when the poor moved out of the projects, they lost their public-support systems – health clinics, child care, job training – which had all been located close at hand. Now they were sometimes miles away.
These conclusions suggest that America’s housing policymakers are way off the mark in several respects. They do not really know what causes poverty or crime. Their current theory – that it’s the person’s or the group’s environment, especially its physical environment (a nice new home to live in) – is largely wrong. Giving people middle-class homes and taking them “out of the ghetto” has little or no positive effect but rather a bad effect.
And while we are on the subject of mixing different cultures together, we should report a large-scale study that made headlines in some quarters – the diversity study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam, a good progressive, was alarmed by the results of his study of some 30,000 individuals across the country. He delayed publication and double-checked his results. In detailed interviews, Putnam and his researchers asked individuals about their “civic engagement,” that is, their involvement in church, government, clubs, just about anything outside of the home. Wherever there was high diversity, a high mixture of cultures, the more likely were the people to withdraw into home life and avoid civic engagement. All the emphasis on “our differences make us strong” may actually lead to disintegration of the larger communities we live in.
by research findings
We googled for “Moving To Opportunity,” the official name of the federal program that gave vouchers to project residents to move out. Close to the top of the search results was a list of research reports. We clicked on four that had interesting titles, and every single study consistently supported the viewpoint in the Atlantic Monthly article reported here. Below are capsule summaries of their findings:
1. “The results show no significant effects on test scores for any age group among over 5000 children ages six to 20 in 2002 who were assessed four to seven years after [moving].”
2. “We are unable to detect evidence in support of the contagion hypothesis.” [The hypothesis is that crime is “contagious” so that if you remove people from a criminal environment – the projects – crime should stop. But it doesn’t.]
3. “We study outcomes in four domains: education, risky behavior, mental health, and physical health. Females [who moved] experienced improvements in education and mental health and were less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Males [who moved] were more likely…to engage in risky behaviors and to experience physical health problems…. Families with female children and families with male children moved to similar neighborhoods, suggesting that their outcomes differ not because of exposure to different types of neighborhoods but because male and female youth respond to their environments in different ways.” [emphasis added]
4. “While girls fare better in many ways after moving to more affluent neighborhoods, boys appear to be either unaffected or negatively affected by such moves.”