Study: crime does not increase when people with housing vouchers move in

A new study suggests people with housing vouchers moving into a neighborhood does not raise crime levels:

The study by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that housing vouchers don’t bring crime to an area. Rather, very low-income people using the vouchers often have limited options and tend to live in areas where crime already is high…

For its study, researchers looked at neighborhood-level data on voucher use and crime in the 10 cities, and whether the number of voucher holders in an area one year led to an increase in crime the following year. The study took into account differences between neighborhoods and other factors that might lead to an increase in crime in some areas.

Researchers found no evidence, even in poor neighborhoods, that an increase in voucher use directly led to more crime. But they did find something.

“If you do look at any given point in time, you do see a correlation, a weak one,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor and co-director Furman Center. “But what seems to be driving that correlation is that voucher (users) tend to rent in neighborhoods where crime is already occurring.”

This sounds like a classic case of reversing cause and effect. But, given the history of residential segregation in the United States, these perceptions aren’t surprising. Middle- and upper-class residents don’t generally want to live in neighborhoods with people with housing vouchers, perhaps due to a fear of reduced property values, perhaps due to race and ethnicity. Thus, this perception of housing voucher residents leading to more crime can serve the purpose of helping to keep class and race lines where they already are.

Some residents opposed to Section 8 vouchers being used for large homes in South Florida gated communities

Here is another side effect of the sluggish economy and housing market: some big homes in South Florida are being rented with Section 8 vouchers.

Housing advocates and the government view the turnabout as a win-win for homeowners and the poor, who have access to safer communities and better schools.

But some neighbors are aghast.

After a single mother and her nine children rented a house in the exclusive Isles neighborhood of Coral Springs, the homeowners association adopted an amendment to its governing documents stating: “No Section 8 or government leasing assistance is permitted.”

The association is threatening eviction.

Federal law does not expressly outlaw such bans. But the prohibition can’t be used as a pretext for other illegal acts, such as denying housing to people because of their race, gender, national origin, disability or number of children.

The Sun Sentinel examined federal housing subsidy data from housing authorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties and found 230 homes commanding rents of $2,000 or more, up to $3,375 a month, from Section 8 families. Typically, tenants pay about one-third of their income toward the rent and the government pays the rest.

Most of the homes were basic, modest-looking residences in unassuming neighborhoods. But about a dozen were far grander, upscale houses concentrated in Broward County’s western suburbs, including Coral Springs, Miramar and Cooper City, where one six-bedroom rental is worth $500,000.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the response of some of the gated community residents: they moved to these communities in part so they might never have to run into people with Section 8 vouchers. It doesn’t sound like this is widespread just yet but I can imagine the headline years later: racial and economic integration was achieved in South Florida through a terrible housing market that limited the ability of wealthier residents to keep out poorer residents.

More housing vouchers now being used in the suburbs

A new report from the Brookings Institute suggests that more housing vouchers are now being used in the suburbs. Here is a quick summary of their findings:

This study analyzes the changing location of HCV recipients within the nation’s largest metro areas in the 2000s and finds:

  • Nearly half of all HCV recipients lived in suburban areas in 2008. However, HCV recipients remained less suburbanized than the total population, the poor population, and affordable housing units generally.
  • Black HCV recipients suburbanized fastest over the 2000 to 2008 period, though white HCV recipients were still more suburbanized than their black or Latino counterparts by 2008.  Black HCV recipients’ suburbanization rate increased by nearly 5 percent over this period, while that for Latinos increased by about 1 percent.  The suburbanization rate for white HCV recipients declined slightly.
  • Within metro areas, HCV recipients moved further toward higher-income, jobs-rich suburbs between 2000 and 2008.  However, the poor and affordable housing units shifted more rapidly toward similar kinds of suburbs over that period.  By 2008 about half of suburban HCV recipients still lived in low-income suburbs.
  • Between 2000 and 2008, metro areas in the West and those experiencing large increases in suburban poverty exhibited the biggest shifts in HCV recipients to the suburbs.  Western metro areas like Stockton, Boise, and Phoenix experienced increases of 10 percentage points or more in the suburbanization rate of HCV recipients.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise as more poor people now live in suburbs than big cities. But this could help explain how some of the poor are moving to the suburbs. As the US government has moved away from funding high-rise housing projects to providing housing vouchers, more people have decided to use these in the suburbs where there may be more housing and jobs.

These findings could also bring up some interesting issues regarding how suburban communities and residents feel about the use of housing vouchers in nearby housing. I think it is safe to assume that many suburban residents would not necessarily want to live near poorer residents but the voucher program makes this a bit more anonymous. If people knew that their community was a popular site for the use of housing vouchers, what would they do?

I would also suspect that the use of these vouchers in clustered in less wealthy suburbs, not very spread out throughout the metropolitan region.