Tuesday, July 1, 2008
In this space and elsewhere, I have written about the success and promise of better-low cost housing and better social understanding offered by the federal “section 8” voucher program and other efforts to integrate recipients of housing assistance within a mixed community. In fact, almost every optimistic thinker has had good thoughts about the policy of moving away from crime-ridden urban housing projects in favor of integration, such as the once-famously successful results of the Gautreaux litigation in the 1970s and 80s. Remove poor families from the toxic atmosphere of the projects, the argument went, and you encourage them to be better citizens, and at the same time you foster better understanding between poorer and wealthier Americans.
So it was truly depressing to read a story by Hanna Rosin in this month's Atlantic Monthly that relates the dispersion of low-income households with the spread of crime in cities such as Memphis, Louisville, and elsewhere. Rosin argues that spikes in crime in many moderately sized cites correlate with policies that subsidize housing for poor urban families in new neighborhoods. She cites a study by Wayne State’s George C. Galster that shows, while the concentration of poverty has fallen in recent decades, the number of neighborhoods with a moderately high number of poor households has increased, and that crime rates often rise significantly in these communities with moderately high poverty rates.
A reason for the disappointment, Rosin suggests, is that the early reports of success from the Gautreaux litigation and similar efforts were based on small numbers of unusually motivated poor families who moved away from the projects and found success. With the rapid growth of the voucher programs, however, poor families have not spread out widely, but have largely re-concentrated in moderately priced neighborhoods (with housing prices so high, they had no choice). If a critical mass of unmotivated poor youths develops in a neighborhood, the argument appears to run, this mass often re-generates the gang and crime culture of the projects.
These depressing reports certainly will reinforce opposition in suburban neighborhoods to greater integration with housing assistance recipients. And so the thinkers and policy-makers head back, once again, to the drawing boards …
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