The Dallas Housing Authority’s board of directors (DHA) adopted a new policy this week to require public housing tenants to register their overnight guests with the apartment manager. According to the DHA the goal is to reduce crime in the housing developments which housing authority officials says is mainly caused by “visitors” to public housing.
There is no doubt that crime in public housing developments is a cause of concern, especially for the people who live in public housing and who are often its victims. But this new registration system will not solve the problem. The causes of crime in public housing and the real solutions are more complex.
The main contributors to crime in public housing are:
1) Neighborhood. Because of racist public policy, public housing was for years built to promote the segregation of people along racial and ethnic lines. The fact that public housing has been built in many of the least desirable residential neighborhoods is a major factor for the crime problem.
2) Mismanagement. The professional quality of the management of public housing is generally not on par with private apartment developments. I’ve worked in public housing developments and have seen first hand the effect of unprofessional and incompetent management that is tolerated in some public housing developments. There are some good managers in public housing. In the places where they run the apartments crime is much less a problem. Good on-site management in public housing is too often the exception however.
3) Some tenants. A few extremely poor households in public housing are dysfunctional and live outside the norms of society. Outsiders often paint all public housing residents with a broad brush as having these traits. Yet the view from within public housing is much more nuanced. Most families living in public housing are decent, moral people trying to hang on with incomes that are way to low to survive in our society. A handful of families within public housing developments seem to become crime magnets. Yet they pose a problem for the entire public housing community. It just takes one or two seriously dysfunctional families to create a serious problem in an apartment community. These families, often female headed households, have simply no ability and sometimes no will to control the behavior of children, relatives and friends. Add in a bad neighborhood, management that does not do its job and the results are catastrophic.
4) Psychology. Society’s attitude toward public housing compounds the problem. Public housing is the housing of last resort for the poorest members of our society. Rather than deal with the problems that cause poverty and crime we in the outside public housing society have chosen to contain it within the public housing developments. As such, residing in public housing has come to be viewed by the outside community as a badge of shame and failure. Police and social workers especially view public housing as a place where those who cannot live in regular society should be forced to live. They and we treat the residents of public housing much as we would the inmates of a public institution. Some heightened level of crime has come to be tolerated and expected in public housing by those on the outside.
Which takes us back to the actions of the DHA and the mandatory registration of overnight visitors of public housing. This is an ill-informed and ill-conceived anticrime strategy that will flat out not work and will, in fact, make things worse.
Given the unprofessional nature of some public housing managers, the indignity of having to register one’s overnight visitors is unimaginable. This is one of those cases where a regulation will only have the effect of punishing those few individuals who try to do the right thing by abiding by the rules. Most will choose to ignore the rule. This will encourage other rules to be ignored.
Enforcement will be impossible. Attempts to enforce the rules will only drive out of public housing the very rules abiding, conscientious families that are essential to building a stable and safe residential community –the people who will not look the other way when crime and other problems occur within public housing.
And finally, the intrusion into people’s lives is flat out unacceptable.
The Dallas Morning News reported that residents of public housing spoke out and defeated an attempt that would have required overnight guests to go through criminal background checks.
Sandra Samuel, a resident leader who spoke out in June against the original proposal, said the revised policy is an improvement.
“I am not here to complain this time,” she said, adding that residents also want a safer community. “It’s not only for DHA, it’s for their benefit, too. Thank you for listening.”
Reason prevails, at least to a limited extent at DHA, thanks to the tenants. The DHA board should spend more time listening to the tenant’s ideas for effectively dealing with crime instead of promoting ill conceived and unworkable solutions like the this one.