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Editorial: Public housing and crime: an uneasy mix

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Updated: May 6, 2012 8:20AM

More times than not, there’s a kernel of truth in any urban myth. When it comes to relocated CHA residents, make that a healthy serving.

Despite assertions otherwise by Chicago Housing Authority officials, it turns out there is a link between the clustering of public housing residents in city neighborhoods and an uptick in crime.

A new study out Thursday offers the first systematic look at this issue. Researchers studied how neighborhood crime rates changed between 2000 and 2008 after 6,400 families left demolished CHA high-rises with subsidized vouchers to rent private apartments.

Researchers at the Urban Institute, a highly regarded think tank in Washington, D.C., found that a small number of neighborhoods that had the greatest numbers of relocated families had more crime than they would have had if no residents had moved in. In those neighborhoods, the violent crime rate was 21 percent higher than in comparable areas without any relocated CHA residents.

Interestingly, other low-income families with vouchers who had never lived in the projects had a much smaller effect on crime rates than relocated CHA residents.

To put these findings in context, the Urban Institute’s Susan Popkin emphasized that the crime impact is “much smaller” than “popular accounts imply.” In other words, CHA residents are an easy target.

Popkin’s report, in the end, is actually an affirmation of CHA’s Plan for Transformation. Popkin notes that crime was down across Chicago during this time, and she attributes 1 percent of the violent crime decrease to the CHA’s tear-down plan. Crime was down even in the areas where residents clustered, though it didn’t fall at the expected rate.

There was also a huge drop in crime in the areas once home to the projects; gun crime dropped 70 percent. And it’s important to note that the volume of crime didn’t simply shift en masse to the new neighborhoods where families moved.

Popkin also praised the CHA for offering quality supportive services and relocation help for families, a weak link in the early years but much improved since 2008. That investment must continue and expand.

Chicago was right to tear down its high-rise ghettos. The city and CHA residents are better for it.

But there has been a serious downside. It’s incumbent on CHA leaders to acknowledge that and do everything possible to soften the blow.

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