Showing Your Work: Does Affordable Housing Always Mean More Crime?

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After someone sent me a story about the mindset behind a certain email circulating regarding Highland Park ISD’s bond election, you know what stuck out to me?

Besides the fact that it felt like a prop from recent HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which unspooled the whole mess Yonkers, N.Y., found itself in regarding affordable housing, the other thing was this: There was absolutely no attempt to show any work regarding assertions. No aspersions cast on the writer of the story — he’s just quoting a guy. My beef is with the lack of solid bonafides behind the claims.  I used to have this editor that got all kinds of twitchy and irritable when (even in an op-ed) you didn’t at least attempt to give some sourcing for your assertions. “SHOW YOUR WORK,” he’d bellow.

So instead of picking apart the arguments in that email (and the quotes in that story) based on my ideological differences with the claims, I decided to approach things with an open mind and actually look at real studies done on affordable housing and crime. I mean, what if the guy was right? Or, what if he was quite wrong? Don’t you think it deserves a little look-see, at least, to see what we can find from reputable sources?

The area highlighted in red roughly shows where Highland Park ISD serves Dallas addresses.

The area highlighted in red roughly shows where Highland Park ISD serves Dallas addresses.

First off, let’s unpack where this particular brand of NIMBY likely came from. If I had to guess, it probably dates as far back as the 1930s, when the presence of low-income families meant the difference between no ability to get a home loan (areas that had predominantly black families and low-income families were redlined), or even as much of a difference as 80 percent financed/20 percent down (for an area with no low-income families and solely white) or 15 percent financed and 85 percent down (in an area where there was a racial mix and a lot of low-income families). The appearance of low-income or non-white ethnicities in your neighborhood during this time was a harbinger of plummeting property values and hardship.

But what about now? Is that true?

According to several organizations dedicated to tracking and studying affordable housing and planning, not so much. Because here’s the deal — there are different types of affordable housing, and many cities are moving away from the “projects” model of housing to a more integrated approach of placing affordable abodes within middle class and higher-income neighborhoods. In 2011, New York University’s Furman Center took a look at voucher programs in 10 cities, using data from police departments and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and found that the increase of voucher holders did not contribute to increases in neighborhood crime. In fact, they found no association between the arrival of voucher holders and the incidence of crime one year later.

Another Furman Center study found that, basically, individuals performed up or down to established neighborhood standards.

“Placed-based” housing (what many people traditionally think of when they think of affordable housing), yes, can have higher incidents of crime. But even that depends on how they are built.  The Urban Institute found that subsidized housing doesn’t have to bring increased crime if it is well-designed and well-managed. While there is some evidence that crime can increase, it seems to be most likely when the housing is built in areas already struggling with lowering property values and rising crime rates.  A Wayne State/Urban Institute study suggested that “proximity to dispersed public housing was not associated with any post-development increase in reported crime of any type.” This article from the California Department of Housing & Community Development is also interesting in breaking down common myths surrounding affordable housing.

The biggest takeaway from my dive into data is that if you place an affordable housing complex in an area already dealing with rising crime rates,  the story is pretty different from if you build a well-designed one in an area with low crime. In other words, nobody can say — based on legitimate data — that putting in low-income housing will bring no-good, bad, horrible people to your neighborhood. I mean, nobody can say it won’t, either, but they can say that it likely won’t if established best practices based on scads of data are employed. Also, it probably helps if the neighbors are pretty darned insistent on having input regarding what goes up. Most everyone I’ve met in the Park Cities seems like a pretty insistent bunch. Just saying.

And the requirements once you’re in subsidized housing are fairly strict nowadays.  Here is a sample lease for HUD-subsidized homes, and here’s another. In each, you will find that guests are limited to 14-day stays at most and that there are requirements regarding upkeep and maintenance, illegal activity, and some other things not found in typical leases.

So what does this data dump mean? It means that if you find yourself living near an area that may some day become a location for affordable housing, it’s important to push past the initial NIMBY gut reaction and look at the data. I just scratched the surface of the studies that have been done (the Furman Center is a wealth of information regarding affordable housing policy). Use that data to ask better questions. Better questions can only yield even better, more specific information. It also helps to show your work when you’re asking city officials, Dallas Housing Authority folks and others, for more information. Generalities only feed a general fear and are wholly unproductive.

But what about Dallas?  Here’s an interesting thing: You may already be living near affordable housing. According to the DHA, tenants can get vouchers and live anywhere in the city that accepts them. “Residents have more than 500 apartment complexes with more than 12,000 units from which to choose,” the DHA website explains. Through its Family Self-Sufficiency Program, residents can live in one of 50 single-family dwellings the authority owns throughout the city.

So the moral of the story? Do your homework. Ask better questions. Don’t believe everything that hits your inbox (boy, have I learned that one before), and realize that unsubstantiated claims are just that — unsubstantiated claims. And don’t take my word for it, either. Will I be watching the rumored pocket of Dallas to see what transpires? Yes. Will I be asking pointed questions based on what I’m reading now from reputable fact sources? Yes.

I encourage you to do the same, but in the meantime, my unsolicited advice? Don’t let a nebulous-at-best rumor be the thing that determines your vote on things as important as the future path of your school district.

8 Comment

  • Bravo. Also, resist getting to the top and pulling up the ladder to keep others out.

  • but while you are reading, don’t just waste money on your isd because your friend told you to vote Yes.

  • “… individuals performed up or down to established neighborhood standards.” Um, no actually if you consider recent history just a stone’s throw from Park Cities.

    Look northeast to Lake Highlands for what happens when you thrust Section-8 housing on a quiet community-minded suburb, one straddling LBJ-635 in this case. For a real education, take a close look at crime stats and public school performance from the 1980s forward and where we are today. Note that the City of Dallas and Richardson ISD overlap in Lake Highlands — recognize the pattern? It’s taken over thirty years for LH to begin to emerge from the experience of being socially engineered and we still have a lot of recovery to do. Ya’ll in the Park Cities might benefit from tapping into LH’s lessons learned, just sayin. Happy trails.

  • mm

    I think that sometimes, in haste to entrench further in a popular but possibly outdated trope, we stop reading too soon.
    Comparing apartment complexes in Lake Highlands and other areas built 30 and 40 years ago to what might happen in the 2000’s could be (as the data and science linked to in this post reveals) comparing apples and oranges.
    Why? You can’t compare poorly designed, poorly maintained units to a well designed, well planned and well executed new unit. It would be like saying “this car seat I bought in the 80s was not very safe, ergo today’s car seats aren’t very safe either.”
    Is the potential for the same old same old still there? Yes. This is bureaucracy, politics and governance, so of course. But does it lessen if the citizenry around it educate themselves on what good in place affordable housing looks like, and then organize and be both watchdogs and neighborhood advocates? Yes. And is it right to let a nebulous rumor be the sole reason you argue against something?
    Idk man. Your call.

    • Bethany, you write with idealized intentions. Let’s unpack a bit, shall we? You write: “the requirements once you’re in subsidized housing are fairly strict nowadays. “. In the worst of the subsidized housing, these rules aren’t followed. Management teams are afraid of the tenants. Or, management has an incentive to keep the lease metrics up. The management team might lease out to a single mom, but then a boyfriend starts living there. And then his friend crashes there for a while.

      In your comment, you add “Comparing apartment complexes in Lake Highlands and other areas built 30 and 40 years ago to what might happen in the 2000’s could be… comparing apples and oranges.” OK, fine. LH has at least two new apartment complexes that fall under DHA due to acceptance of TIF money. Go pull the crime reports. If they have been faithfully reported and recorded, you will find at least one problem per month (car theft, domestic abuse, noise complaints, abandoned vehicle, solicitation, breaking and entering).

      I do agree with you wholeheartedly that PC folks should learn more. There is a world of difference between slumlord, drug-infested, skanky Federal Section 8 housing and brand new, modern DHA subsidized housing.

  • I suggest you give careful thought to what it’s going to take to enforce all those wonderfully written leases should you awaken to a brave new world the day after voting. While it may sound reassuring that “guests are limited to 14-day stays at most and that there are requirements regarding upkeep and maintenance, illegal activity…” who exactly is going to monitor compliance day in and day out? Are you going to wait for a felony to happen (misdemeanors don’t count) before hoping the landlord chooses to dedicate resources to researching and removing lease violators? Just for kicks, imagine your worst case scenario — absentee landlord (out-of-state? out-of-country?), long-term stays by unidentifiable occupants, sub-letting, vehicles abandoned/stored in guest parking areas, streams of in-an-out traffic (just friends? yeah right), neighboring households that expand to your doorstep when squatters take over common areas — all while tolerance is preached to you by management. If you can live with it, well honey, sweet dreams.

    • mm

      Considering it is still a rumor at best, can we keep the condescending comments based on supposition and not fact to a minimum?

      I showed my work for those that would like to drill down and actually read the hyperlinks. I’ll be happy to continue discourse with those folks that choose to read and actually deal data-driven fact.

  • Not much in life is guaranteed. But when you touch on sensitive topics about which you come across as someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know, you can be pretty sure you are going to hit nerves. Want data? Help yourself to Dallas public records and information out of Richardson ISD. Zip codes for Lake Highlands are 75231, 75243 and 75238. The trend lines should speak for themselves.