Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity
The confusion continues where Rosin conflates the demolition and redevelopment of public housing, the use of rental housing vouchers to let former public housing residents relocate to new neighborhoods, and several small-scale initiatives, such as the Moving to Opportunity experiment, to counsel families and help them move to neighborhoods of “opportunity.” Those efforts get trashed in the article, though they have no precedent in the Memphis experience.
For starters, Rosin focuses much of her article on the demolition of public housing. But much of this demolition, in Memphis and other cities, did not reflect a liberal do-gooder program to fight poverty. In fact, it was a Republican-led Congress that required, in 1996, that the largest and most distressed public-housing developments—those that failed a mandated “viability” inspection—be demolished rather than repaired. The Clinton administration supported this move. (Consider that the national backlog of needed repairs at the time was estimated by HUD to be at least $24 billion in 1998. So far Congress has only provided about $6 billion for the HOPE VI program.)
That policy, and not HOPE VI, not some “grand anti-poverty experiment,” as Rosin claims, is what led to most of the demolition in Memphis. It wasn’t a liberal reformer’s pipe dream but a fiscal push, from the federal level, to tear down crime-ridden, decrepit projects and re-allocate funds to the much more flexible, lower-cost housing voucher program.
Furthermore, it’s true that living alongside higher-income neighbors was not conceived as a cure-all for poverty. But mixed-income developments are dramatically safer than the distressed public housing they replaced. All in all, surveys show, mixed-income developments are popular with the few former public-housing residents who live in them, although they want—and at the most innovative sites do receive—more supportive services, as well as opportunities to socialize with neighbors, share recreational facilities, and make the environment welcoming for all, regardless of income level.
But Rosin uses the image from one HOPE VI site in Memphis to characterize a program operating in many cities. It’s misleading and unfair, though the challenges she identifies are important. There is evidence, for example, from tenant-review Web sites, in-depth interviews with tenants, and other sources, that property management is much more effective at some mixed-income developments than others, also that relations can be tense between tenants on housing assistance and their higher-income neighbors in some mixed-income developments. These issues deserve close attention and follow-up.
As for the Section 8 voucher program, in 1974, under Nixon, HUD stopped financing large-scale public housing “projects” and focused instead on providing very low-income families with housing vouchers, similar to food stamps, which enabled families to rent apartments in the private market. The new laws also authorized a small number of units for housing for the elderly and for new construction and management by private developers. Waiting lists for Section 8 are often years long, especially in tight housing markets, when the lists are open at all. Funding cuts have led to many closings. And those are precisely the regions where much economic growth is concentrated in America.
What is more, in many places, landlords, especially those with apartments in middle-class areas, routinely refuse to accept families with Section 8 vouchers. A few states ban discrimination on the basis of “source of income,” but these laws are hard to enforce, in part because the violations are hard to detect or go unreported by frustrated tenants. Plus, HUD puts a ceiling on voucher payments, which leaves many decent apartments, especially in high-cost markets, out of reach for voucher holders.
In spite of its limitations, the housing voucher program has been very successful at fulfilling its main objective: making housing affordable for very low-income people. Families that otherwise pay between one-half and three-quarters of their income, on average, to meet housing costs pay just the program standard—30 percent of household income—leaving money to buy food, transportation, clothing, health care, and other essentials.
As a result, the program reduces homelessness, exposure to domestic violence, and housing instability, which in turn spares costly-to-run shelters, crisis services, hospital emergency rooms, and other systems. Though the Bush administration has consistently proposed deep cuts in the program even as housing costs climbed around the country, the Section 8 housing voucher program has enjoyed steady, bipartisan support, and rates well in federal audits in terms of overall program performance versus expenditure. Many families who receive a voucher use it to help the pay the rent in the unit they are currently living in. They “lease in place” and rarely move.
But the voucher program has been less successful at two things: helping families find an apartment when apartment vacancies are low (that is, in tight markets), and helping very low-income families move to predominantly middle-class areas.
Because many communities, especially in the suburbs, refuse to permit construction of apartments, rents in those communities are often above the program caps mandated by Congress, and because many landlords, as we noted above, refuse to rent to low-income families, the recipients of housing vouchers cluster somewhat where there are vacant and affordable apartments—and cluster more extremely in some cities.
As research shows and Rosin acknowledges, this clustering is typically in moderately poor and relatively segregated neighborhoods—neighborhoods not far from the high-poverty ghettos. Despite this, there is, on the whole, relatively little concentration of voucher holders within a given neighborhood (census tract). According to HUD research, in the central cities of the 50 largest metro areas in 2000, Section 8 voucher holders comprised 10 percent or more of all households in only 5 percent of the census tracts. That is, in only 1 in 20 neighborhoods do voucher holders make up even 1 in 10 of the households. More recent research indicates, however, that in some cities, vouchers cluster in certain “hot spots” and may add to neighborhood distress. Rosin is right that the vulnerability of these receiving neighborhoods, as well as the concerns of their residents, are issues that local housing programs should take seriously and address carefully. This may not have happened in Memphis.
Still, most of the people living in these neighborhoods, even areas becoming poorer, do not live in subsidized housing. Moreover, researchers at The Urban Institute have found no evidence that families who left HOPE VI public housing projects were “clustered” in high-poverty areas.
Revisiting the Facts on the Ground: Memphis
Notwithstanding valid concerns about the dispersal of poor families, the facts on the ground regarding both the HOPE VI and the Section 8 programs in Memphis belie Rosin’s murder mystery scenario.
In 1990, Memphis was a city of 618,652. The city’s poverty rate was 22.9 percent—139,767 people lived below poverty. By 2000, Memphis had grown to 650,100. Along with the rest of the nation, its poverty rate had declined—to 20.6 percent—or 133,920 people. By 2005, however, while the city’s population fell to 642,251, its poverty rate spiked to 23.6 percent—or 151,571 people. While the overall number of poor people increased by about 12 percent, the number of poor adolescents (12-17) increased by about 45 percent.
If one is looking for a prime suspect for rising crime rates, there it is. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of violent crimes (murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) increased slightly, from 9,085 to 9,610. By 2005, while the city population was falling, the number of violent crimes increased sharply—to 12,629.
Over the entire period, from 1990 to 2005, the number of very low-income Memphis residents living in subsidized housing remained roughly the same. As public-housing projects were torn down, Memphis allocated a roughly equal number of Section 8 vouchers to its poor families, although not all the displaced families got a voucher.
Rosin fails to address the dramatic increase in the overall number of violent crimes during a period when the number of people living in subsidized housing remained roughly the same. Instead, she is mainly concerned with an alleged geographic shift in the location of violent crimes. But there are many reasons why crime may relocate, including police practices.
Police departments routinely focus their attention on crime “hot spots,” including gang activities. The criminals don’t stay put but move to other areas of the city. Police then shift their focus to the new “hot spot,” leading gangbangers and others to seek new areas. Too often, crime doesn’t go down. It just moves around. Except that in Memphis’ case, it went up and it moved around. Clearly, the Memphis Police Department was struggling to keep up as Memphis became one of the nation’s most violent cities. But why blame the Section 8 and HOPE VI program for the problem, when they operate in many other cities that have not experienced an uptick in crime?
The reporting is sloppy as well. Early in her article, Rosin states that between 1997 and 2006, “tens of thousands” of formerly public housing residents were dispersed “into the wider metro community” of Memphis as a result of the razing of public housing projects. Later, she claims that “the number of people displaced from public housing” was “well over 20,000.” The reality is that during that period, about 5,000 (out of abut 7,000) units of Memphis’ public housing stock were torn down—again, only some of them through HUD’s HOPE VI program. At least one-quarter of those units were already vacant. So, at most, 4,000 public housing families were displaced by the bulldozer. Even if the average public housing household had four persons—a figure considered high by public housing standards—the number of people who lost their homes would total 16,000—not “well over” 20,000. And a small share of those families returned to live in the same neighborhoods after their developments were redeveloped as mixed-income housing.
Over the same decade, Memphis gained some 3,077 Section 8 housing vouchers, most of them targeted to the public housing tenants who lost their homes and moved elsewhere. In 2007, 5,144 families—some of them former public housing residents—lived in apartments using Section 8 housing vouchers. This is a small number in a city of 642,000 people.
Where do the families with Section 8 vouchers live? For cost and other reasons, a small share live outside the Memphis city limits. Rosin’s notion that Section 8 families were bringing a crime wave to once-bucolic suburban neighborhoods is simply baseless.
There is some evidence that most Memphis families with Section 8 vouchers, including those displaced from public housing, moved to areas that were already on the decline, with rising crime rates, caused by private disinvestment and the exodus of middle income families to Memphis’ suburbs. Comments by a Memphis resident, posted after Rosin’s article appeared, challenge her notion that these areas were peaceful prior to the alleged influx of Section 8 families. “I do have to take exception to the notion that North Memphis or Frayser were little slices of heaven as late as 2000. It may be worse now, but it was pretty rough in those areas before.”
The most casual and unfortunate part of Rosin’s analysis of crime and public housing relocation is her assertion that there must be a direct causal link somehow mirrored in the maps she discusses and shows, between a federal program and the patterns of crime in one city. She indicts a program, without any hint of direct or clear evidence, using the simple version of an ongoing mapping project by two University of Memphis researchers. Basic statistics textbooks tell us: correlation is not causality. Such guilt by association is suggestive but irresponsible without better evidence. Similar claims have been made in other cities and been debunked after careful examination of the facts.
Peter Dreier, an NHI board member, is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century and several other books.
Xavier de Souza Briggs is associate professor of sociology and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and editor of The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America.