In 2008, Hanna Rosin published a fascinating, controversial article in The Atlantic, "American Murder Mystery," which explored the possibility that attempts to dissipate crime and poverty by tearing down public housing in high-poverty neighborhoods simply pushed crime out of the city center and into marginal outer-ring neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs. Rosin concentrated on Memphis, but as with anything involving public housing, it was impossible to write without writing about Chicago:

Still, researchers around the country are seeing the same basic pattern: projects coming down in inner cities and crime pushing outward, in many cases destabilizing cities or their surrounding areas. Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that after the high-rises came down in Chicago, suburbs to the south and west—including formerly quiet ones—began to see spikes in crime; nearby Maywood’s murder rate has nearly doubled in the past two years. In Atlanta, which almost always makes the top-10 crime list, crime is now scattered widely, just as it is in Memphis and Louisville.

One of the researchers who appears in Rosin's article is Susan Popkin, a former UIC prof and Urban Institute researcher:

If replacing housing projects with vouchers had achieved its main goal—infusing the poor with middle-class habits—then higher crime rates might be a price worth paying. But today, social scientists looking back on the whole grand experiment are apt to use words like baffling and disappointing. A large federal-government study conducted over the past decade—a follow-up to the highly positive, highly publicized Gautreaux study of 1991—produced results that were “puzzling,” said Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute…. The best Popkin can say is: “It has not lived up to its promise. It has not lifted people out of poverty, it has not made them self-sufficient, and it has left a lot of people behind.”

Partially in response to Rosin's article, Popkin and a UI team undertook a systematic analysis of crime rates in neighborhoods in Chicago and Atlanta that once had public housing, and the neighborhoods that now house those former residents, with an attempt to predict what the crime rates would have been in the opposite scenario. The results are, in some respects, concerning:

* Neighborhoods with a high density of relocated households (more than 14 per 1,000) have a violent and property crime rate 21 percent higher than it would have been without public-housing transformation.

* Neighborhoods with moderate density (seven to 14 per 1,000) have a rate 13 percent higher.

* Neighborhoods with low density (two to six per 1,000) have a rate five percent higher.

On the other hand, crime in the former public-housing neighborhoods declined precipitously between 2000 and 2008: violent crime by 60 percent, property crime by 49 percent, and gun crime by 70 percent, compared to 13 and nine percent between 2002 and 2009 in similar neighborhoods in Atlanta (gun crime stats weren't available for that city). But spread out citywide across Chicago, the results are small: a one percent net decrease in violent crime, and a 0.3 percent decrease in property crime, although gun crime, a particular problem in public housing, declined by 4.4 percent, while accounting for the overall drop in crime across the city.

In short, a major decline in specific neighborhoods (and a minor decline citywide) is traded for an increase in other neighborhoods. While the results may be somewhat encouraging overall, that's cold comfort to people who live in neighborhoods where crime is estimated to have increased, as the Sun-Times reported:

“It has been disastrous for Chatham,” said Keith Tate, president of Chatham-Avalon Park Community Association.

“Never did we see individuals sitting on their cars drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer.”

But it's likely a more complicated relationship than former public-housing residents simply bringing crime with them, as suggested by a study from NYU's Law School and Wagner School of Public Service from last year, which covered ten U.S. cities. What the authors found was that voucher recipients chose, or were guided to, neighborhoods that were in decline:

While crime tends to be higher in census tracts with more voucher households, that positive relationship disappears after we control for unobserved characteristics of the census tract and crime trends in the broader sub-city area. We do find evidence to support a reverse causal story, however. That is, the number of voucher holders in a neighborhood tends to increase in tracts with rising crime, suggesting that voucher holders are more likely to move into neighborhoods where crime rates are increasing.

A look at Atlanta last year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that, while former public-housing residents ended up in neighborhoods with better housing stock and lower crime rates, they tended to concentrate in poor neighborhoods:

According to an analysis of geographic data, the study found that the demolition of public housing units did not lead to an even dispersal of former public housing residents across the region. Residents moved to just 88 census tracts out of a possible 660 in the Atlanta metropolitan region.


Most survey respondents did not move to racially integrated communities. Their new neighborhoods remained predominantly African American. In addition, survey respondents relocated to census tracts with an average poverty rate of 30%, significantly higher than the city-wide poverty rate of 21%. This finding suggests that the Atlanta public housing transformation did not accomplish the goal of moving residents away from high poverty neighborhoods.

This mirrors earlier findings in Chicago:

Conservatively, based on our research, about 20 to 25 percent boast dramatic improvements in their living situation. This is not insignificant, but it certainly is not stellar, given that since 1995, over 80 percent of tenants have moved to areas with at least a 30 percent minority population and greater than 24 percent poverty.

Why not just flee? Availability of housing is an issue—a lack of demand in poor neighborhoods depresses housing prices and rental costs, meaning that housing in poor neighborhoods is likely to be the most realistic option for voucher recipients. But social connections are a significant issue:

In Robert Taylor, Henderson lived with her mother, who was not on the lease but who provided her free childcare. Several local storeowners offered her credit when she ran out of money for food and household items. And, in her building, she bartered with friends, exchanging a few diapers for a cup of sugar. As she often says, “Poor people help poor people. They have no one else, so they know how to help each other get by.” Leaving Robert Taylor in 2002 meant saying goodbye to neglectful police and violent gangs, but it also meant leaving behind all of these invisible social supports.


Through the same research, we found that 76 percent of a tenant’s social network is comprised of other public housing inhabitants. Because most of these families are in their old neighborhood, it’s not so surprising to learn that families are going back to their project communities in order to find support and to make ends meet.

Not all of the social structures that develop in high-poverty public housing are negative. The density of crime in poverty in public housing and its isolation from broader city networks creates very strong support networks within those neighborhoods—not just social, but economic as well. Giving up derelict housing may be appealing, but giving up the semblance of a community is much harder.

The city spent many years constructing vast housing projects, and pulled them all down within a decade. The former was arguably the first Mayor Daley's biggest legacy in terms of infrastructure, and the latter the biggest infrastructural legacy of the latter. But changing the infrastructure was the easy part—around that infrastructure a massive social superstructure grew up in response, one that's subtle, frequently off the books—and, it would seem, more robust than the buildings that inspired it.


Photograph: Monika Thorpe (CC by 2.0)