Reporter alleges Section 8 tenant crime wave, but where is the evidence?

The elite media has decided to focus on whether Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher holders are bringing crime to suburban neighborhoods.

Instead of bringing to light the millions of poor families living in deplorable conditions because they cannot afford decent housing, instead of exposing slumlord exploitation of the poor, instead of chronicling the lives of poor children living in crime-infested impoverished neighborhoods, the elite media is focused on poor Section 8 voucher holders, mostly single moms with children, who are allegedly bringing crime to comfortable suburban neighborhoods.

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” – Finley Peter Dunne, chief editorial writer for the Chicago Post.

These began with a well written but weakly documented story, “American Murder Mystery.” in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosen. It was picked up Saturday in a copy cat story in the New York Times titled “As Program Moves Poor to Suburbs, Tensions Follow.”  Now papers across the country will do their own stories examining the relationship of crime and poor families with Section 8 vouchers.

A group of national housing experts issued a lengthy rebuttal to the Hanna Rosen Atlantic story, “Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity,” in Shelterforce. According to the Shelterforce article, Rosen’s piece “is part investigative reporting, part misleading caricature.”

Do yourself a favor and read the Atlantic story and the housing experts’ Shelterforce rebuttal because this is going to be talked about — a lot.

Pointing out that while crime in large cities has fallen, it is on the rise in mid-sized cities and suburbs, Hanna Rosen claims to have traced the source of this spike in crime to the demolition of big city public housing developments and the movement of the former public housing residents to outlying suburban areas using Section 8 housing vouchers.  She cites the work of two Memphis-based researchers on crime and housing in that city and surrounding areas.  The researchers, a husband and wife team, one a criminologist and the other a housing researcher, compared maps of crime and the homes Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher holders and, Rosen writes…

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.

This is the foundation of the author’s main conclusion — Section 8 voucher holders brought the crime to these outlying neighborhoods.

An article in American Prospect points out just how shaky Rosen’s evidence is that the crime can be attributed to Section 8 voucher holders…

There is nothing amazing or surprising going on here. Section 8 voucher holders typically migrate to lower-cost housing, which tends to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods where crime is a serious concern. As University of Texas public policy professor Paul Jargowsky, one of the nation’s leading experts on concentrated poverty and crime, says: “If you look at cities throughout the country from 1990 to 2000, you see a consistent pattern of increases in poverty in the inner-ring suburbs, while the central cities had declines. Since poverty and crime are correlated, you would expect that inner-ring suburban crime went up and central city crime went down — but that’s only a statistical artifact of changing neighborhood composition rather than a causal effect of poverty on crime. The correlation of crime and poverty, old news to be sure, is the only thing demonstrated by the map in the article. Nobody likes maps more than me, but sometimes they just confuse correlation and causality.”

Read through all twelve pages of the Rosin article and you will find no data about crime on the part of Section 8 voucher recipients, who are overwhelmingly single moms, their children, the elderly and people with disabilities.  Additionally, all Section 8 tenants are screened by the housing authority for past criminal records, so a sudden new proclivity to commit crime seems highly unlikely.

There is occasional juvenile crime in some Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher households.  Boyfriends and relatives staying in these households are sometimes responsible for crime. We do not yet know who shot three children at a Dallas subsidized development where most tenants receive Section 8. It may have been a person living with a Section 8 voucher holder but not on the lease.  It might have been someone passing by.  It does illustrate that Section 8 voucher holders, like other very low-income people, are often themselves victims of terrible crimes.  But what are the crime rates of Section 8 voucher holders?  That would be interesting and valuable policy information but the article does not tell us.

My point is that the article did not explore the critical policy questions.  Further, the crime examples cited in Rosen’s article were multiple homicides and rape — seldom the crimes of juveniles, moms and old people.

Rosin suggests the Section 8 program is a failure for allegedly not stopping crime and magically transforming the poor into model middle-income citizens.  But these are unrealistic expectations.

It is a shame that Hanna Rosen felt the need to so overreach with the conclusion of this article.  She has handed bigots mainstream media support to stereotype the poor and argue against integration.  Want proof?   Just look at the blogs.  They are filled with entries like this…

Rosin (sic) should be congratulated for taking 12 pages in the Atlantic Monthly to demonstrate that the fundamental problem with public housing projects was that they were full of public housing project residents. And, when the government finally blows up a housing project, the ex-residents just take their felonious folkways elsewhere.

Rosen raises a number of important issues, from a resident’s perspective, about the problems with the demoition of public housing and the overcrowding of Section 8 tenants in older, inner ring suburbs to the exclusion of the more desirable residentail areas.  Too bad all of these issues will be glossed over in the stampede to sieze upon her sensationalized, undocumented and unproven Section 8 crime claim.

About John Henneberger

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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  1. Dallas Morning News op-ed makes economic argument against housing segregation « Texas housers - August 15, 2008

    [...] the controversial Atlantic article I bogged about last week, which links Section 8 housing choice voucher recipients with an increase in suburban [...]

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