Urban Institute Looks at Public Housing Relocation in Atlanta & Chicago


On April 5, the Urban Institute held a forum entitled “Public Housing and Crime: Is there a link?,” at which they released a new publication: Public Housing Transformation and Crime: Making the Case for Responsible Relocation. The forum included a panel, including researchers Sue Popkin of the Urban Institute and Michael Rich of Emory University, practitioners Renee Glover of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) and Charles Woodyard of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and policymaker HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing Sandra Henriquez. Its focus was research conducted in Atlanta and Chicago that sought to rigorously evaluate how the relocation of public housing residents using Housing Choice Vouchers impacted crime in the two cities. In both cases, the ambitious city-wide transformation of the public housing portfolio coincided with dramatic declines in crime city-wide. Neighborhoods in which public housing was demolished saw large long-lasting declines. Neighborhoods into which former public housing residents relocated also saw significant declines, though in vulnerable neighborhoods where there was significant concentration of such relocatees, the decrease was smaller than would have been expected otherwise. The study concludes that a crucial policy implication is the need for responsible relocation strategies that offer substantial support to residents in their moving process, and points to current model relocation progams in Chicago and Atlanta as examples.

Researchers presented these findings, along with a brief explanation of their methodology. They undertook this project in response to a 2008 article in the Atlantic Monthly, which claimed that HOPE VI relocations of former public housing residents led to rising crime in Memphis. Though the article’s analysis was overly simplistic, drawing on negative stereotypes and fears, no rigorous research existed to counter its conclusions—until now. This study does not support the broad conclusions of its catalyst, instead suggesting that in most cases, there is no relationship between relocated public housing residents and crime in their new neighborhoods.

Woodyard welcomed the study as additional evidence that will help the housing authority to improve policies and practices and will inform what is being called The Plan for Transformation 2.0. He raised a number of questions for future research and chronicled what has already been learned about the Plan for Transformation: that residents are faring well, in terms of safety, health, and increased income, as well as in terms of increased access to community and supportive services; that mixed income communities are thriving despite the economic downturn; and that it is possible to dramatically change the landscape of public housing, with more than 21,000 units rehabbed or replaced. Glover focused her initial comments on explaining AHA’s process for thinking about how to protect residents and their unlimited human potential from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty, providing structural access to communities of opportunity. She credited AHA’s participation in the Moving-to-Work program with allowing local problem solving to take a family-based coaching and counseling approach.

Assistant Secretary Henriquez stated that we will never be able to quantify the effects of public housing transformation completely, as they will be accruing for generations to come. She then added more context to the study findings, noting that the two cities involved in the study were engaged in the largest, most dramatic, and most controversial transformation efforts in the country. Many others took a more phased approach, including more gradual relocation and onsite relocation options. The scale of the efforts and the relocation in Chicago and Atlanta were unprecedented. She also spoke of housing authorities’ experience with relocation, including that of Boston, and how they have learned to do it well and responsibly, just as Chicago and Atlanta have refined their processes.

During the question and answer period, both Glover and Woodyard spoke in more detail about how their relocation and supportive services have evolved and taken shape over the course of the transformation, with a move from place-based to family-based strategies in Atlanta and focus on supporting employment in Chicago through Family Works and Opportunity Chicago. Both pointed to research and how it has helped with ongoing program design and validation of program outcomes. Henriquez spoke of how HUD is using lessons learned from HOPE VI to expand the scope of efforts through the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which includes broader partnerships, as the housing authority cannot be held fully responsible for all aspects of their residents’ lives. HUD is also surrounding all programs with evaluation that helps the department to understand its investments and the impact of its efforts.