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The Battle Over Housing the Poor

A July/Aug. Atlantic Monthly article by Hanna Rosin about how a recent rise in crime in Memphis neighborhoods was linked to the demolition of public housing projects and the dispersal of residents with Section 8 vouchers throughout those communities prompted controversy and comments. The conclusions in the piece seemed to contradict the long-held notion that getting people out of overcrowded, run-down housing projects was the best option for fighting poverty and crime, and for improving their lives. As Miriam Axel-Lute explains in Rooflines.org, a blog published by the National Housing Institute, the article sounds “like fighting words to all low-income advocates, fair housing advocates, and people who don’t believe that the poor are inherently criminal.” Some of the criticism turned political, charging Rosin with demonizing public housing residents and giving the right wing new ammunition.

In her posting, Axel-Lute basically tells everyone to calm down, then gives a thoughtful interpretation of the findings:

Everyone acknowledges that many housing projects had a high crime rate. There were many factors contributing to that. It’s actually not particularly more anti-poor or racist to observe that dispersing people out of the projects didn’t always fix the problem. I personally find arguments that crime correlates with poverty because of lack of opportunity, frustration, isolation, unemployment, discrimination, and structural obstacles to be stronger and less patronizing than the idea that if you put enough poor people together the loss of middle-class role models causes crime to sprout out of nowhere.

So I don’t find the Memphis pattern Rosin’s academics describe hard to believe: Large numbers of people facing all those obstacles and challenges and histories were dispersed throughout much of the city and nothing else about their situations changed.

She also points out that none of this is exactly new to housing advocates. The benefits of moving people out of public housing, an idea trumpeted by former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and other conservatives, always was overblown, she said.

Plenty of housing advocates, often in the pages of Shelterforce, have criticized HOPE VI projects for not providing enough replacement housing or relocation support to allow residents to return, and for disrupting support systems and communities that people valued and relied upon, even as they deserved and wanted a safer and more pleasant physical environment. (I was, in fact, speaking recently with someone new to the field who was remarking on how surprising the apparent widespread support for the clearly questionable HOPE VI was.)

Many people in the housing field have also noted that in many cases people displaced by HOPE VI were not moving far and tended to re-concentrate in near-poor neighborhoods, limiting any good effects that de-concentrating poverty might have had.

I liked Axel-Lute’s post because she raises important questions about housing policy that deserve to be looked at more closely. There’s nothing worse than politicizing the problems of the poor and their need for decent housing, even when it means facing sometimes uncomfortable realities. Also, given how little attention ever gets paid to their difficulties in the first place, I’m not going to find fault with any attempt to take a closer look at what’s goes on in the lives of poor people looking for a safe place to live.

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