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Moving From Inequality: Housing Vouchers and Escaping Neighborhood Crime

Summary and Keywords

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program is the largest housing subsidy program in the United States, serving over 2.2 million households. Through the program, local public housing authorities (PHAs) provide funds to landlords on behalf of participating households, covering a portion of the household’s rent. Given the reliance on the private market, there are typically many more locational options for HCV households than for traditional public housing, which has a set (and declining) number of units and locations. The growth of this program has been robust in recent decades, adding nearly 1 million vouchers in the last 25 years. This has been a deliberate attempt to move away from the traditional public housing model toward one that emphasizes choice and a diversity of location outcomes through the HCV program.

There are many reasons for these policy and programmatic shifts, but one is undoubtedly the high crime rates that came to be the norm in and near far too many public housing developments. During the mid-20th century, when the vast majority of public housing units were created, they were frequently sited in undesirable areas that offered few amenities and contained high proportions of low-income and minority households. As poverty further concentrated in central cities due to the flight of higher-income (often white) households to the suburbs, many public housing developments became increasingly dangerous places to live. The physical design of public housing developments was also frequently problematic, with entire city blocks being taken up by large high-rises set back from the street, standing out as areas to avoid within their neighborhoods.

There are many quantitative summaries and anecdotal descriptions of the crime and violence present in some public housing developments from sources as diverse as journalists, housing researchers, and architects. Now that the shift to housing vouchers (and the low-income housing tax credit [LIHTC]) has been underway for over two decades, we have a good understanding of how effective these changes have been in reducing exposure to crime for subsidized households. Further, we are beginning to better understand the limitations of these efforts and why households are often unsuccessful in moving from high-crime areas.

In studies of moving housing voucher households away from crime, the following questions are of particular interest: What is the connection between subsidized housing and crime? What mechanisms of the housing voucher program work to allow households to live in lower-crime neighborhoods than public housing? And finally, how successful has this program been in reducing participant exposure to crime, and how do we explain some of the limitations?

While many aspects of the relationship between subsidized housing and crime are not well understood, existing research provides several important insights. First, we can conclude that traditional public housing—particularly large public housing developments—often concentrated crime to dangerously high levels. Second, we know that public housing residents commonly expressed great concern over the presence of crime and drugs in their communities, and this was a frequent motivation for participating in early studies of housing mobility programs such as Gautreaux in Chicago and the Moving to Opportunity experiment. Third, while the typical housing voucher household lives in a lower-crime environment than public housing households, they still live in relatively high-crime neighborhoods, and there is substantial research on the limited nature of moves using vouchers. Finally, while there is research on whether voucher households cause crime in the aggregate, the outcomes are rather ambiguous—some rigorous studies have found that clusters of voucher households increase neighborhood crime and some have found there is no effect. Furthermore, any potential effects on neighborhood crime by vouchers need to be weighed against their effectiveness at reducing exposure to neighborhood crime among subsidized households.

Keywords: crime, inequality, housing vouchers, housing mobility, public housing, segregation

Crime and Public Housing

Regarding crime exposure for subsidized households, although there is much heterogeneity in the prevalence of crime and violence in different types of subsidized housing, there can be no question that a number of public housing developments have been among the United States’ most dangerous places to live. About Pruitt-Igoe, the infamous St. Louis public housing project that was among the first in the country to face demolition, architect and expert on crime and the built environment Oscar Newman wrote that “women had to get together in groups to take their children to school or go shopping” (Newman, 1995).

Roncek, Bell, and Francik (1981) examined block-level crime rates in areas within varying proximities to public housing in Cleveland, Ohio. The authors analyzed 17 housing projects and used address-level data provided by the Cleveland Police Department. They found that project blocks had significantly higher crime rates than other blocks and that the size of the housing project was related to the block-level crime rate. Additionally, proximity to housing projects increased a block’s violent crime rate. However, when they controlled for other socioeconomic variables, they found that proximity to housing projects was one of the least important factors contributing to a block’s crime rate, suggesting that social conditions are larger drivers of crime than the physical attributes of public housing. Similarly, McNulty and Holloway (2000) looked at race, public housing, and crime in Atlanta, Georgia, and found an interactive effect—public housing proximity and racial composition had little effect on surrounding crime rates on their own, but in areas with public housing and high black populations, violent crime rates were significantly higher. At the cusp of the era of public housing demolition, Dunworth and Saiger (1994) found that violent crime and drug offenses in public housing in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Phoenix were more prevalent than in the respective cities as a whole, although property crimes were actually much lower.

More recently, Blokland (2008) provided evidence that not only were larger public housing towers often plagued by crime and violence, but these conditions were present in some low-density public housing sites, which happen to make up most of the nation’s public housing stock. The author conducted an ethnographic study examining residents’ experiences with crime and violence in a high-crime public housing complex in New Haven, Connecticut, focusing on how residents manage risk. She reported that every person she interviewed experienced violence, either as a perpetrator or as a victim (or both). Over 20% of interviewees reported being robbed, almost 20% had been a victim of rape or sexual assault, and over 80% had a friend or relative killed.

Bloom (2012) provided a counterweight to the conventional wisdom on public housing with evidence from New York City. New York City public housing projects have not been without assorted problems, including crime, but for much of its history, Bloom argued, crime was not a central feature of New York’s public housing communities. Bloom suggested that two factors have had a role in the comparatively low levels of crime and social disorder that have plagued other cities’ large public housing developments—tenant selectivity and rigorous maintenance. By not serving only the worst-off households and by providing more funding for maintenance, Bloom argues that New York City has benefited by more manageable crime problems in most of its public housing developments, all of which are very large and imposing structures and frequently located in relatively low-income neighborhoods.

Bloom also reported that as a result of New York’s strong property management record, surveys of public housing residents concluded that New York’s public housing stock was more attractive to tenants than the market-rate housing available to them. This contrasts markedly with the experience in Chicago, where Popkin, Gwiasda, Olson, Rosenbaum, and Buron (2000) reported that the basements in the Henry Horner Homes were “filled with pools of fetid water, scurrying rats and dead cats and dogs, human and animal excrement, and drug paraphernelia.” Although there is no empirical work that can allow for definitive statements about the role of maintenance in the comparably lower crime conditions in New York relative to Chicago, extreme levels of physical disorder may have contributed to a general sense of social order in Chicago public housing. Interestingly, the New York experience suggests that both environment-based (property management) and people-based (tenant selection) explanations for the public housing and crime link may be relevant.

Planning Theories on Crime and the Built Environment

To better understand how voucher households may escape public housing neighborhoods that commonly have higher crime, it is necessary to understand why households in subsidized housing programs tend to live in higher-crime neighborhoods. The most salient explanations are the built environment and demographics, specifically concentrations of poverty. Regarding the former, the most influential theories on crime and the built environment were developed separately by Oscar Newman (defensible space) and C. Ray Jeffery (crime prevention through environmental design [CPTED]) in the early 1970s, each of which were influenced by pioneering work in the 1960s by urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs and Shlomo Angel. Newman’s defensible space theory (Newman, 1972) drew applied architectural design concepts to investigate empirical relationships between housing development features and crime rates. Newman specifically found LeCorbusier-style developments that paired high-rise towers with open spaces intended to provide recreation for children and families to be particularly crime-ridden. This model of public housing development attracted crime, Newman claimed, because it lacked defensible space. Defensible space is achieved both through “target hardening”—design features that repel criminal activity such as fences, gates, and locks—and through design elements that encourage residents to assert control over their public spaces and neighborhood environments (Newman, 1972, p. 4). Newman suggests four physical design elements to enhance security: strict territorial definition, apartment windows that allow residents to easily survey public areas, building forms that blend into the surrounding urban fabric and lack peculiarity, and siting in areas near safe functional activities. Readers of Jane Jacobs would find familiarity with the latter three elements, as Newman—in addition to attacking LeCorbusier’s “Radiant City” urban renewal projects—clearly advocated for structures that increase the number of “eyes on the street” and integrate a diversity of land uses within a cohesive urban area.

Newman’s research has been highly influential in the movement away from traditional public housing toward scattered-site subsidized housing development and the use of housing vouchers. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acted on the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing’s recommendations to demolish up to 86,000 severely distressed public housing units. Many of these units were located in high-rise towers. While not all of these were particularly crime-ridden, Newman’s theories and empirical work on defensible space had taken hold in HUD and influenced the types of developments that were targeted by HUD for demolition. Evidence of this can be found in the writings of the HUD secretary at the time, Henry Cisneros. In 1995, Secretary Cisneros penned an essay—Defensible Space: Deterring Crime and Building Community (Cisneros, 1995)—promoting the application of Newman’s principles in renovating public housing to enhance safety. Further, he provided a case study of a development that Newman was commissioned to redesign—the Clason Point project in Bronx, New York—which saw substantial decreases in crime after Newman’s redesign. Secretary Cisneros noted specifically that defensible space techniques were a part of HUD’s ongoing crime control efforts in the 1990s. Newman also was an important figure in the highly contested housing developments in Westchester County, New York, in the 1990s, documented in the book and HBO miniseries of the same name, Show Me a Hero (Belkin, 2015).

Jeffery’s CPTED places greater emphasis on physical deterioration and disorder. Unlike defensible space, CPTED did not grow directly from investigations of public housing and therefore focuses on many forms of land use, including commercial and private residential property (Schneider & Kitchen, 2002, p. 101). As a criminologist, Jeffery developed CPTED as a response to the classic Chicago School (e.g., Shaw & McKay, 1942) sociological emphases on culture and social norms at the ignorance of physical environment (Jeffery, 1971; Schneider & Kitchen, 2002). CPTED outlines four areas to address in reducing a location’s crime presence—housing design or block layout, land use and circulation patterns, territorial features, and physical deterioration (Taylor & Harrell, 1996). The first three features generally correspond to defensible space theory. The addition of physical disorder as a crime mechanism serves as a bridge between planning theory and criminological theorists such as Wesley Skogan and James Q. Wilson; the latter paired with George Kelling to popularize the “broken windows” theory of policing (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Ultimately, CPTED did not have the same influence in policy and planning circles as defensible space. While Newman’s research led to a moratorium on high-rise public housing construction, CPTED was essentially ignored by the federal government (Davies, 2006, p. 19).

In sum, these theories provide a framework for how the physical design of traditional public housing can produce neighborhoods with elevated crime rates. In the context of the housing voucher program, this suggests that program participants have a chance of leaving behind such dangerous conditions if they are merely able to leave the buildings and neighborhoods behind. However, the empirical evidence that design is to blame for crime is scant, and criminological theories point to more social explanations that emphasize the influence of individuals over neighborhood crime environments.

Criminological Theories on the Spatial Concentration of Crime

Sociology has long been the disciplinary home to the study of crime, embodied in the field of criminology. Criminology is a large field, but the theories of crime that are most relevant to relationships between subsidized housing and crime concern the spatial distribution of crime—the set of mechanisms that explain why crime is higher in one area rather than another. One theory particularly relevant to the connection between subsidized housing is social disorganization theory, pioneered by Shaw and McKay (1942). Social disorganization theory reflects the sociological orientation that neighborhood structural characteristics, such as low socioeconomic status, racial composition, and residential mobility, lead to increased prevalence of crime due to the breakdown of social and community norms. Research by Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997) further emphasized the role of community norms when they developed the concept of collective efficacy. Their research on Chicago neighborhoods shows how even in neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status, cohesion and trust among neighbors and a willingness to intervene on behalf of one another can combat crime and delinquency.

Routine activity theory was developed through research by Cohen and Felson (1979), where they attempted to explain the continued rise of criminal activity in the face of improving socioeconomic trends (Miró, 2014). They described the criminal as working through routines, in which they conduct criminal activity when they are motivated, there are suitable targets, and there is a lack of “capable guardians” of those targets (or of the offender) (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Routine activity theorists—and subsequent empirical studies—suggest that land use and physical environment features can be altered to reduce the likelihood that offender and target routines cultivate those three necessary conditions and lead to predatory crime. Multilevel opportunity theory merges individual and environment-based theories of crime to contextualize how particular places provide differential levels of opportunities for offending and victimhood, primarily through perceived levels of risk and fear (Tillyer, Fisher, & Wilcox, 2011).

Taking these theories together, it is more plausible that neighborhood social characteristics have greater effects on crime than the physical built environment. This suggests that providing households with the resources to leave high-crime neighborhoods (a) is more likely to reduce household exposure to neighborhood crime than changing the enduring, structural characteristics of the neighborhoods themselves and (b) is possible unless the movement of these households replicates the social disorganization and criminal opportunities in the destination neighborhoods. The latter point—whether the housing voucher program concentrates poverty and crime in destination neighborhoods—is the topic of several recent studies that are relevant in discussions on the limitations of the housing voucher program to reduce neighborhood crime exposure.

Neighborhood Crime Exposure for Voucher Households

To some extent, the limited availability of neighborhood crime data constrains the existing evidence on crime exposure for voucher households. However, studies on residents that participated in the housing mobility programs, particularly Gautreaux and Moving to Opportunity (MTO)—provide evidence on the neighborhood safety of public housing residents, voucher households, and displaced HOPE VI households. Because the areas under study were chosen for their high levels of distress, findings do not necessarily reflect the lived experiences of all subsidized households, but they are illuminating as a snapshot of a subset of these neighborhoods. It is clear that these groups were located in very high-crime areas when entering the Gautreaux or MTO program and moved to lower-crime (yet still relatively unsafe) areas.

The first of the housing mobility programs—the Gautreaux program—was created in Chicago in 1976 as a result of a series of lawsuits against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and HUD. Gautreaux offered black families in CHA housing the opportunity to move to desegregated areas around the Chicago area, including the suburbs. The program moved more than 7,000 families between 1976 and 1998 (Keels, Duncan, Deluca, Mendenhall, & Rosenbaum, 2005). Crime and violence levels in Chicago public housing projects have received a great deal of attention over the years, eventually resulting in widespread demolition of troubled developments. In 1980, the Robert Taylor Homes—the largest public housing development in the country at the time—comprised only 1% of Chicago’s population yet was the site of 10% of the city’s murders, aggravated assaults, and rapes (Rubinowitz & Rosenbaum, 2000). Fourteen years later, conditions in the Robert Taylor Homes were no better—in 1994, a gang war erupted in which 300 shooting incidents were reported over a 5-day period (Popkin et al., 1999). Several other Chicago developments were extremely dangerous places to live, including Henry Horner Homes, Rockwell Gardens, and Harold Ickes Homes (Kotlowitz, 1991; Popkin et al., 1999). Vouchers allowed Gautreaux participants to move in large numbers from housing developments such as these. While participants faced much lower crime rates, on average, in their new neighborhoods than those they left behind, they continued to face higher crime rates than those in their surrounding areas (Keels et al., 2005). Specifically, suburban movers had a violent crime rate about five times as high as the overall crime rate in the Chicago suburbs at that time, and those that moved within the city faced violent crime rates about 1.5 times higher than the city’s overall crime rate (Keels et al., 2005). More promisingly, many years after their initial move, the Gautreaux households tracked by Keels et al. (2005) lived in neighborhoods with violent and property crime rates comparable to Cook County (where Chicago is located) as a whole.

MTO was launched by HUD in 1993 as an experimental demonstration in five cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City—to move subsidized households into low-poverty neighborhoods. The program contrasted with Gautreaux in several ways, but two are important to note. First, households drawn from public housing in the five cities that agreed to participate were randomly assigned to one of two treatment groups (that received vouchers) or a control (public housing as usual) group. Second, the moves focused on income integration rather than racial integration—participants in one of the treatment groups could only use their vouchers in census tracts with poverty rates less than 10%. At baseline, residents described their neighborhoods as particularly crime-ridden. Goering, Feins, and Richardson (2002) found that more than half of MTO participants responded that their main motivation for moving was crime, gangs, and drugs in their neighborhoods. In the Los Angeles site, that figure was 60% (Hanratty, McLanahan, & Pettit, 1998). Administrative data from police departments confirmed these perceptions: Kingsley and Pettit (2008) reported that violent crime rates for the baseline MTO census tracts in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles were three times higher than in the metropolitan areas as a whole.

How successful were MTO participants at escaping crime through these moves? Kling, Ludwig, and Katz (2005) found that four years after random assignment, the Section 8 mover group (those randomly assigned a voucher that could be used anywhere) neighborhoods’ violent and property crime rates were virtually identical to the control group neighborhoods. For this subset of voucher holders, neighborhood safety was no better than in the public housing neighborhoods they left behind, suggesting that using the voucher had no benefit. However, Kingsley and Pettit (2008) reported that violent crime rates in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles were almost twice as high in the origin neighborhood than in the Section 8 movers’ initial post-move neighborhood. Additionally, Feins and Shroder (2005) reported results of pre- and post-move surveys for the treatment and comparison groups. The difference in difference estimates were significant for every question asked about neighborhood safety for both the treatment and comparison groups. Thus, there is evidence that MTO participants moved to safer neighborhoods, but it is not entirely clear from administrative data that they were in safer neighborhoods than if they had not participated in the program.

Lens, Ellen, and O’Regan (2011) was the first study to systematically examine the neighborhood crime exposure of subsidized households across the United States. They used crime data and data on voucher, public housing, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC)1 households using data from 2000 on over 9,500 neighborhoods in 91 cities. The authors report that while the average crime rate faced by housing voucher households is 24% higher than the average for all households in the 91-city sample, renters below the poverty line lived in neighborhoods with crime rates 7% higher than voucher households, crime rates were 31% higher for LIHTC residents than voucher households, and public housing neighborhoods had 41% higher crime rates than voucher neighborhoods. Further, only 4.4% of voucher households lived in high-crime neighborhoods (defined as one standard deviation above the mean) compared to 11% of LIHTC and public housing units.

That paper and others (McClure, 2006, 2008) find that poverty rates are typically the same for voucher and LIHTC neighborhoods, so the disparity between the two programs in neighborhood crime—which are the largest housing subsidy programs and the fastest growing by far—is surprising and noteworthy. Given that voucher households have more location choice than either comparable low-income households without vouchers or public housing and LIHTC households, these findings suggest that voucher households were using that added choice to reside in lower-crime neighborhoods. This is the most compelling evidence to date that the voucher program is more successful than other existing subsidy programs at reducing crime exposure for subsidized households. Unfortunately, neighborhood crime data is often difficult to come by, and updating these numbers with more recent crime statistics is a worthy goal of future research.

Taken together, the literature suggests that public housing households live in particularly dangerous neighborhoods with alarming frequency. Much of what scholars know about the crime exposure of public housing and voucher households comes from Gautreaux and MTO and thus represents a very particular subset of voucher (and in some cases non-voucher) movers out of public housing. However, in research that takes a national scope (Lens et al., 2011), voucher households lived in much safer neighborhoods than traditional public housing and LIHTC households—and even other renters below the poverty line—but not less safe neighborhoods than the non-subsidized population. A firm conclusion can be drawn that the housing voucher program is an improvement on supply-side housing policies such as the LIHTC and public housing in facilitating participant access to lower-crime environments. However, these successes are somewhat limited.

What Explains the Limited Success of Voucher Households in Moving from Crime?

There are several factors that likely limit the success of voucher households in moving away from neighborhood crime. First, despite the fact that vouchers significantly increase the menu of options available to participating households in the rental market, they are still acutely price-constrained—high-amenity areas tend to have high prices, and there is a particularly clear link between crime and property values (and, by extension, rents) (Harris, 1999; Jud & Watts, 1981; Linden & Rockoff, 2008). The substantial research that voucher households live in high-poverty neighborhoods stands as additional evidence that limited purchasing power for voucher households leads to location in areas that are lower cost and more likely to have blemishes, such as high crime rates (McClure, 2006, 2008; Pendall, 2000). Landlord reluctance to rent to households using vouchers adds an additional constraint. The HCV program provides a light administrative burden for landlords, in that there is a unit inspection. Additionally, landlords may also harbor biases about voucher households that makes them reluctant to rent to them (Briggs, Comey, & Weisman, 2010; Freeman, 2012; Sard, 2001).

Exacerbating the role of income constraints and landlord discrimination, there is a growing body of evidence that low-income households do not make residential location decisions with the same set of considerations and information of the typical household (Rosenblatt & Deluca, 2012). Further, there are barriers to entry into low-crime, high-amenity neighborhoods that voucher households are more likely to face. Regarding residential location decisions and outcomes, research on the MTO experiment provides important insights. Observers of the program have expressed disappointment at the locational outcomes of MTO households from a neighborhood quality perspective (Rosenbaum & Zuberi, 2010). Rosenbaum and Zuberi compare the experiences of Gautreaux and MTO participants. While differences in post-move neighborhoods are expected, given the different emphases of the two programs—racial integration for Gautreaux and low-poverty neighborhoods for MTO—the destination neighborhoods were substantially better across several dimensions for Gautreaux participants. Among movers, destination neighborhood poverty and unemployment rates were twice as high for MTO participants, 10% of MTO participants and 88% of Gautreaux families lived in school districts with above-average test scores, and 38% of MTO families and 4% of Gautreaux families lived in neighborhoods where 40% or more of the population was African American (Rosenbaum and Zuberi, 2010). Rosenbaum and Zuberi suggest that the basic differences in neighborhood requirements (mostly white suburbs in Gautreaux, census tract poverty rate less than 11% for MTO) were not solely to blame for the differing results. A key difference was the role of program staff. Gautreaux staff found units and matched them to families. MTO had counseling assistance, but participants were free to find housing on their own, as long as it was located in low-poverty census tracts.

The role of counseling assistance has been a frequent source of debate about neighborhood outcomes for housing voucher households. While Gautreaux had more direct and intensive location assistance than MTO, it is not clear whether the Gautreaux form of location assistance could scale up to serve all or even most voucher households, and it is further unclear how effective counseling assistance has been in most parts of the country, when it is offered at all. Shroder (2002) took an early look at moves in the MTO program and found that the location constraint—that the treatment group’s vouchers could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods—reduced the lease-up rate (whether they would successfully find housing using a voucher) by 14%. Although the counseling provided helped counteract this effect, it was not enough to overcome it. This is a crucial difficulty with steering households to neighborhoods with particular attributes, be it low crime, low poverty, or high-performing schools—reducing the menu of options makes it less likely that a given family will successfully find housing.

Briggs et al. (2010) echo these conclusions, as they report that while the experimental MTO group lived in a wider array of neighborhoods than the overall voucher populations in those cities, the differences were not very substantial. They also provide qualitative evidence that allows for more nuanced understanding of the MTO population’s mobility motivations and constraints. Importantly, they report that improving neighborhood safety—which was a chief motivation at the initial intake interview—continued to be a paramount concern for MTO participants. Briggs et al. (2010) report that the role of social networks and supports is more complicated than previously assumed. They note that some families were constrained in their moves in order to remain close to family and friends, but others used vouchers to move away from some in their social circles, and some families were between the two extremes. Briggs et al. (2010) note that families often have to trade off between a valued housing unit and a nice neighborhood and that they are rarely able to find both. On the supply side, participants frequently reported that landlords were unwilling to rent to them and that this was a bigger problem in more expensive neighborhoods. Relatedly, participants reported that real estate agents would frequently steer them to buildings where landlords were known to accept housing vouchers. As noted previously, landlord discrimination is a problem for the broader voucher population as well.

Rosenblatt and Deluca (2012) examined Baltimore MTO participants to better understand the decision-making processes of these households. They interviewed a sample of 124 heads of household from the three MTO groups. Some of their findings echo those of Briggs et al. (2010), including the difficulties with landlords and the constrained supply of housing that reduces choice for these families. Much of the focus in Rosenblatt and Deluca (2012) is on subsequent moves—moves after the initial move that was precipitated by MTO participation. In these cases, landlord neglect of housing was a frequent factor, and by this point, counseling by MTO staff was no longer a benefit. With respect to neighborhood safety, Rosenblatt and Deluca (2012) concluded that participants often engaged in what they termed “telescoping”—that they were concerned only with the crime on their block, not in the surrounding area. If the block looked nice and seemed safe, the encroaching conditions on neighboring blocks could be overlooked.

Lens (2013) examines the housing market and metropolitan area characteristics that are most associated with different levels of neighborhood crime exposure for the broader population of housing voucher households—not just MTO participants. This article uses variation in crime exposure for housing voucher households to run a set of regression models that estimate the effect that various urban characteristics have on that exposure in 91 U.S. cities. Results of these models conclude that supply considerations are important—in cities where much of the rental housing stock is located in high-crime neighborhoods, voucher households are constrained to live in such neighborhoods. Similarly, market tightness in low-crime neighborhoods appears to be an important factor—where the vacancy rate is low in low-crime neighborhoods, voucher crime exposure is high. And where rent differentials between high- and low-crime neighborhoods are larger, voucher neighborhood crime exposure is also high. These housing market and crime exposure connections hold after controlling for several city characteristics, including the spatial concentration of vouchers, crime, and poverty (separately) and racial characteristics.

A well-studied phenomenon may further explain why voucher households find it difficult to escape neighborhood crime—in some cases, crime may follow them. There is now extensive research on whether housing voucher households themselves are a source of neighborhood crime. In sum, this research concludes that while heavy concentrations of voucher households may contribute to elevated crime levels in their neighborhoods, observed correlations between voucher households and crime are more commonly the result of voucher households moving to neighborhoods that already have higher crime rates.

Empirical Evidence on the Impact of Subsidized Housing on Crime

Ellen, Lens, and O’Regan (2012) used longitudinal data for 10 U.S. cities covering various years between 1997 and 2008 to estimate whether increased voucher numbers in census tracts lead to elevated crime. The authors concluded that the strong observed relationship between vouchers and crime was due to the fact that voucher households tend to move to neighborhoods that are experiencing increases in crime and/or have high crime rates to begin with.

Lens (2014) used national data (12 years, 215 cities) on vouchers and crime to identify whether crime rates in cities and suburbs were related to subsidized housing policies. The findings suggested a rather complex relationship between voucher households and crime in metropolitan areas. First, voucher rates had a small, downward pull on city crime rates. Second, in the suburbs there was a stronger, positive relationship between vouchers and crime. This relationship did not hold in all models, but the effect was not small—a 1% increase in the voucher rate led to about a 0.4% increase in violent crimes (and 0.1% increase in property crimes).

Additionally, some recent papers have suggested that housing vouchers are associated with rising neighborhood crime rates. Suresh and Vito (2009), looking at data from Louisville, Kentucky, found that homicides were initially clustered in and around public housing developments and were then located near Section 8 apartments once public housing was demolished. However, this work was largely correlational given it looked at one point in time. Van Zandt and Mhatre (2013) analyzed crime data within a quarter-mile radius of apartment complexes containing 10 or more voucher households. The authors found that clusters of voucher households are associated with higher rates of crime. Popkin, Rich, Hendey, Parilla, and Galster (2012) examined public housing transformation in Chicago and Atlanta and tracked the households using vouchers to leave housing slated for demolition. They found that an influx of voucher households into a neighborhood increases crimes in that neighborhood after a threshold of voucher households enters the neighborhood, providing the most reliable evidence to date that vouchers increase crime. However, it is unclear whether the high amount of neighborhood turnover that large influxes of voucher households portend are to blame for crime in this case. Aliprantis and Hartley (2015) also look at the case of public housing demolition and subsequent dispersal of the subsidized population in Chicago. They observe small increases in some crimes that result from this dispersal—notably assault, burglary, and gang activity—but these increases are much smaller and cover fewer types of crime than the large declines in crime in and around neighborhoods where public housing was demolished. Mast and Wilson (2013) examined this question in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the advantage (like Popkin et al., 2012) of having many years of data for individual neighborhoods. Like Popkin et al. (2012) they found evidence that voucher households increase neighborhood crime, specifically once the voucher population has moved past a particular population threshold. In an unpublished paper, Carr and Koppa (2016) take this research in a different direction, in which they attempt to determine whether voucher receipt affects the propensity for individual recipients to commit crimes. Using data from a voucher lottery in Houston, they link individuals on voucher waitlists and recipients to Houston Police Department databases and find that voucher receipt increases criminal involvement of male recipients but not female ones.


There is a long-standing connection between crime and poverty in the United States, and this connection has often been strongest in areas with concentrations of subsidized housing. For decades, public housing developments were how we housed low-income households with subsidy, and as these developments and their surrounding neighborhoods deteriorated, they often became hotbeds of crime. The shift from the public housing model toward the housing voucher program that emphasizes housing choice and recipient dispersal into an array of neighborhoods has been brought about in part because of the concentration of crime in public housing. While this shift has resulted in a subsidized housing population that has lower exposure to crime than the public housing population, housing voucher households still occupy neighborhoods with higher poverty and crime rates than is typical. Some of this is due to basic housing economics, but there is also a great deal of research that suggests that housing voucher households face significant challenges in locating to low-crime neighborhoods not related simply to financial resources. These include landlord discrimination, limited knowledge about potential destination neighborhoods, and the possibility that concentrations of voucher households themselves may contribute to elevated crime rates in their neighborhoods.

There remain outstanding avenues for future research. First, much of this research involves spatial analysis, and future inquiries should attempt to make use of fine-grained, point-specific data and cutting-edge spatial analysis methods. Second, more qualitative studies regarding the residential decision-making processes of low-income and voucher households are needed to better understand their constraints and how to remove them. Third, we need more neighborhood crime data to better assess the typical voucher household’s exposure to neighborhood crime. Only one study has utilized a large sample of cities’ neighborhood crime data, and those data are over 15 years old at the time of this writing. As a result, we know distressingly little about the nature of the problem—the extent to which housing voucher households are exposed to neighborhood crime and whether that has changed as the program has grown and evolved.

Further Reading

Aliprantis, D., & Hartley, D. (2015). Blowing it up and knocking it down: The local and city-wide effects of demolishing high concentration public housing on crime. Journal of Urban Economics, 88, 67–81.Find this resource:

    Chetty, R., Hendren, N., & Katz, L. F. (2015). The effects of exposure to better neighborhoods on children: New evidence from the moving to opportunity experiment. Working Paper 21156. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from this resource:

      Ellen, I. G., Lens, M. C., & O’Regan, K. M. (2012). American murder mystery revisited: Do housing voucher households cause crime? Housing Policy Debate, 22(4), 551–572.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                    (1.) The LIHTC is the predominant form of subsidy from the federal government uses to build affordable housing. Developers receive tax credits in exchange for setting aside a portion of housing units to be occupied by and affordable for low-income households for up to 15 or 30 years.