New study analyzes effect of former CHA residents on new neighborhoods

April 5, 2012

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A new study reveals that Chicago neighborhoods that have become destinations for relocated public housing residents have not experienced the decreases in crime that other parts of the city have.

Since 1999 the Chicago Housing Authority’s has been implementing its Plan for Transformation, one of the nation’s largest and most ambitious public housing endeavors. The Plan tore down public housing high rises to build mixed-income communities. Thousands of families received housing vouchers to move into the private market.

The new study, conducted by researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, examined changes in crime patterns since the Plan’s inception. The study’s authors suggest crime has declined citywide since the Plan’s start, but neighborhoods with concentrations of voucher-holding families did not see expected decreases. The institute estimates that demolition of Chicago’s public housing and the relocation of residents through vouchers resulted in a one percent decrease in violent crimes citywide between 2000-2008.

Yet, the report’s picture is complex. Rates of violent crime in neighborhoods with more than 14 relocated households per 1,000 families were 21 percent higher, on average, than rates in neighborhoods with no relocated households.

Conventional wisdom is that the relocated public housing residents bring increased crime along with them. “Our findings clearly indicate a much smaller impact of public housing transformation on destination neighborhood crime rates than popular accounts imply. Nevertheless, they suggest that there are negative impacts for some neighborhoods when relocated households take up residence in them,” the report says.

The Urban Institute points out that those neighborhoods were vulnerable to high poverty and high crime rates before the arrival of voucher-wielding households; therefore, it’s hard to tell if crime decreased less because of those conditions. WBEZ has reported that most relocated residents are shuffled into Chicago neighborhoods such as Englewood and Austin.

The report posits several reasons why relocation might affect crime: relocated residents experience disruption in social networks, and that puts them at risk of committing crimes or becoming victims; new residents disrupt the communities’ sense of mutual trust and social cohesion; and lastly; residents and their associates engaged in criminal or drug activity when they lived in public housing, and they brought that activity along when they relocated.

Many neighborhoods with new public housing residents have grappled with differences in socialization, which may not be crime related. Former high-rise residents have been known to barbeque on the sidewalks of their new blocks — an act that’s viewed as offensive but not violent. Still, public housing residents are perceived as culprits of crime.

“The study does not support, that so I feel good about that,” said CHA CEO Charles Woodyard. “I think the study tried to tackle a difficult task: trying to make some conclusions based on a hypothetical question, which is, ‘What do you think would’ve happened to crime if the Plan for Transformation had not been initiated.’”

CHA is retooling 1999’s Plan for Transformation into a 2.0 iteration. Woodyard says the agency will look at boosting its supportive services to help those relocated families.

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