Who Dun It in the “American Murder Mystery?”

The Atlantic story on crime in Memphis (Tenn.) and Louisville (Ky.) by Hanna Rosin and her identifying “one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades [the Section 8 […]

The Atlantic story on crime in Memphis (Tenn.) and Louisville (Ky.) by Hanna Rosin and her identifying “one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades [the Section 8 housing voucher program and public housing demolitions]” as the culprit has created a storm in the housing-policy world.The debate took place on NPR and here on Rooflines in an excellent post by Miriam Axel-Lute titled “Memphis's Unwelcome News” (posted July 1, 2008).

Rosin points to the geographic overlap of high concentrations of violent crime and concentrations of Section 8 voucher addresses in Memphis as evidence for her thesis. She also points to growing crime in inner suburbs and outlying areas of cities across the country.

Rosin has simply got the wrong culprit. This is guilt by association. The culprit she fingers was present at the scene of the crime, but there isn't a shred of evidence that recipients of Section 8 vouchers are themselves engaging in violent crime.

Rosin's article presents a graphic merging the map of concentrations of violent crime with a map of Section 8 addresses in Memphis. She dramatically describes it as follows:

On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots.

It is clear from this map that Section 8 voucher recipients in Memphis tend to live in neighborhoods with a high concentration of violent crime. That is the real story here. This is the story that should have been highlighted in Rosin's article.

Recently, in an NPR interview Hanna Rosin said that former public-housing residents were given Section 8 housing vouchers and told to “go where you want.”

There is a fallacy in this understanding of the Section 8 voucher program.

In fact, voucher recipients don’t simply go where they want; they can live only where a landlord will accept a Section 8 tenant. Landlords, both individually and in groups such as landlord associations, are typically not in favor of having Section 8 tenants. Frequently, it is only landlords in already declining neighborhoods (with increasing crime and other problems) that are prepared to lower their resistance to Section 8 tenants. This is exactly what seems to have happened in Memphis.

In addition to landlords' resistance to Section 8 tenants, there is also discrimination by landlords against minority voucher recipients (see text of letter to the editor of The Atlantic by Justin Massa . Massa is executive director of MoveSmart.org ). All these factors severely restrict the neighborhoods that are available for Section 8 voucher recipients.

The stigma against Section 8 voucher recipients could be removed by reforming the program in a manner that does not brand a tenant as a “Section 8 tenant.” The housing subsidy should be paid directly to a needy, qualifying family instead of to the landlord. And tenants should not have to declare their Section 8 status to the landlords. There would still be a stigma against these families on account of their low income, but it would not be as strong as the stigma against Section 8 tenants.

The Section 8 voucher program is severely flawed. I have pointed to the drawbacks of this program in my research paper Evaluation of the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program under a Welfare Economics Framework . However, it is completely erroneous to state that this program leads to an increased incidence of violent crime.

In addition to landlords resisting Section 8 tenants, neighbors (entire communities) are also opposed to Section 8 tenants.

Let's examine the reasons.

Some of the opposition to Section 8 tenants in the community is simply a bias against poor people, and against poor minorities. But in addition to that, lower-income communities have good reason to be resentful of Section 8 tenants because of the lack of horizontal and vertical equity in the housing-voucher program. A Section 8 tenant could live next door to a hardworking family that earns lower income than the Section 8 family, and yet pays higher rent for the same housing. This is happening in neighborhoods across the country.

An average poor or lower-income family in America has a virtually zero chance of obtaining a housing voucher. The Section 8 housing voucher is not a full-coverage program. It ends up not assisting a majority of poor qualifying households. To add injury to insult, the presence of a good number of Section 8 tenants in a building could raise the rents for all tenants of the building (as landlords simply hike rents by the extent of at least some of the rent subsidy). Hence, neighbors and communities have some good reasons to resent Section 8 tenants.

The Rosin article is clearly on the wrong track; but the renewed interest it has generated in the housing-voucher program should be used constructively.

Advocates for affordable housing should push for reforming the Section 8 voucher program by making it an equitable program, a full-coverage program, and a reliable safety net for all Americans. I have made some proposals in this regard in my paper

Today, as the U.S. economy is beset with job losses and economic insecurity, how many Americans can count on the Section 8 housing voucher program as a safety net in their (let us hope) temporary time of need?The answer is not many—because of the long waiting lists in most cities, confusion about allocation criteria, long-term use of vouchers by a lucky few families, and administrative inefficiency in the program.

Unless this program is reformed, it will not have the support of a majority of Americans. In its current form, the program is simply a lottery—a few get in and stay in, while the majority of the needy and deserving families are left out in the cold.

So who dun it in Memphis? It is an ill-conceived program that stigmatizes voucher recipients and forces that steer these families to unsafe neighborhoods.

And why is crime rising in inner-ring suburbs and areas outside central city areas? The answer to this is found in analysis conducted by the Joint Center for Housing Studies .
This analysis shows that from 1990 to 2000, in the 91 largest metropolitan areas, although the number of people living in high-poverty census tracts declined within five miles of the CBD (central business district), this number increased at distances greater than five miles from the CBD — typically in inner- and outer-ring suburbs.

In her article, Rosin writes:

At first I approached the story literally, the same way a cop on a murder case would: here’s the body, now figure out what happened. But it didn't take long to realize that in Memphis, and in city after city, the bodies are just the most visible symptoms of a much deeper sickness.

The deeper sickness is not the voucher program or the demolition of public housing; it is poverty and the lack of jobs for the lower economic classes in these cities. Several downtowns in cities across America have gentrified rapidly. Housing has become unaffordable in these parts, and there are few employment opportunities for lower-income people.
Many lower-income families have been forced to move to the cheaper inner ring suburbs and adjoining areas, increasing the poverty concentration there.

Joblessness, poverty, and economic insecurity are strong contributors to crime. Many of these neighborhoods where lower-income families have moved also have a high concentration of ex-felons who have virtually no opportunities for legal work. It is not surprising then that the crime rate in these neighborhoods has increased. It has everything to do with joblessness, poverty, economic insecurity, and lack of economic opportunities for ex-felons, and nothing to do with the largely irrelevant housing- voucher program.

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