Memphis’s Unwelcome News

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 1, 2008

Hanna Rosin has caused quite a stir with her dramatically titled Atlantic Monthly article American Murder Mystery. (For the record, we writers rarely get to write our own headlines, so don’t hold her accountable for that.)

The uncomfortable pattern that she reports on from Memphis was identified by a criminologist and housing expert who happen to be married to each other and discovered to their chagrin that a recent rise in crime across Memphis’s neighborhoods was correlated with the demolition of public-housing projects and the spread of former residents, now with Section 8 vouchers.

Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section 8 rentals…. 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 sounds, of course, like fighting words to all low-income advocates, fair-housing advocates, and people who don’t believe that the poor are inherently criminal. And Rosin’s article, while it does not simplistically demonize former public-housing residents, does slip into phrases like “criminal element” and asserts in one place that the point of programs to disperse concentrated poverty was to inculcate the poor with “middle class values.” Yuck.

And it is true that she’s too cavalier with taking one apparently stunning set of data from one city (oh that we could have seen that map for ourselves, especially with changes over time) and imputing a larger trend.

However, I also came away with the feeling that MIT associate professor of sociology and urban planning Xavier de Souza Briggs, who was interviewed on NPR responding to the article, protested a bit much.

I know he was concerned by the fodder that this article is providing to right-wing pundits and the possible effects on housing funding, as am I (and as was Rosin). But just because people will use an idea badly or draw the wrong conclusions from it doesn’t make it de-facto not true.
So let’s consider for a moment what it would mean if there were some truth to it.

Everyone acknowledges that many housing projects had a high crime rate. There were many factors contributing to that. It’s actually not particularly more anti-poor or racist to observe that dispersing people out of the projects didn’t always fix the problem. I personally find arguments that crime correlates with poverty because of lack of opportunity, frustration, isolation, unemployment, discrimination, and structural obstacles to be stronger and less patronizing than the idea that if you put enough poor people together the loss of middle-class role models causes crime to sprout out of nowhere.

So I don’t find the Memphis pattern Rosin’s academics describe hard to believe: Large numbers of people facing all those obstacles and challenges and histories were dispersed throughout much of the city and nothing else about their situations changed.

Of course, a critical mass of poverty in a neighborhood does play a role in many things, from affecting how well services are delivered to influencing the real-estate market. And the architecture of many projects was hellish and isolating and dangerous. Those are factors. But my underlying point is that if the mapping from Memphis and the trend it implies holds true in other mid-sized cities experiencing spreading crime, it doesn’t necessarily mean the implosion of all that progressives believe in.

For one thing, forced dispersal is a very different animal from removing mobility barriers. Among other things, the dislocation would disrupt any hope of forming collective efficacy for quite a while.

For another, many of the critiques in Rosin’s article are no news to anyone steeped in housing debates. Plenty of housing advocates, often in the pages of Shelterforce, have criticized HOPE VI projects for not providing enough replacement housing or relocation support to allow residents to return, and for disrupting support systems and communities that people valued and relied upon, even as they deserved and wanted a safer and more pleasant physical environment. (I was, in fact, speaking recently with someone new to the field who was remarking on how surprising the apparent widespread support for the clearly questionable HOPE VI was.)

Many people in the housing field have also noted that in many cases people displaced by HOPE VI were not moving far and tended to re-concentrate in near-poor neighborhoods, limiting any good effects that de-concentrating poverty might have had.

Further, if more systematic and careful research, which we should continue to call for, shows that these new crime patterns do exist in other cities, it will definitely be troubling, especially the part where the total volume of crime increases as the area covered by modestly concentrated poverty increases. It will be a major political obstacle to even good, non-forced housing-opportunity programs, and indeed all affordable-housing work.

But if that happens, let’s not take the Republican approach and pretend the patterns don’t exist. Let’s take it as a call to reinvigorate the tenants’ rights portion of the housing movement, build more unity between progressive movements, and return to focusing on the structural and political causes of poverty and its negative side-effects, not just the particular damages of highly concentrated poverty. Things like living-wage jobs, worker protections, corporate accountability, and welfare rights (because there actually are not enough jobs and under our current economic system never will be) are going to go a lot farther toward the goals of “self-sufficiency” and lowering crime than knocking down the projects. They can’t be left out of the equation.

We can do this without putting our tails between our legs. It is not housing advocates’ job to keep some putative criminal element (or in fact, the poor) corralled, and indeed that is not a solution that is just, equitable, or sustainable.

If HOPE VI is having unintended negative consequences, that doesn’t mean the problem it was trying to address wasn’t real, nor does it mean housing advocates have to apologize for believing in fair housing and mixed-income neighborhoods. It means that everyone else needs to step up to the plate and actually address all the ways we screw the poor instead of expecting knocking down the projects to make all the ills of society go away.

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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Andrew Macurak
7 Jul 08, 3:24 pm

Eloquently put. Rosin’s article certainly confuses correlation and causation.

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