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date: 17 January 2021

Moving From Inequality: Housing Vouchers and Escaping Neighborhood Crimelocked

  • Michael LensMichael LensLuskin School of Public Affairs, University of California Los Angeles


The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program is the largest housing subsidy program in the United States, serving over 2.2 million households. Through the program, local public housing authorities (PHAs) provide funds to landlords on behalf of participating households, covering a portion of the household’s rent. Given the reliance on the private market, there are typically many more locational options for HCV households than for traditional public housing, which has a set (and declining) number of units and locations. The growth of this program has been robust in recent decades, adding nearly 1 million vouchers in the last 25 years. This has been a deliberate attempt to move away from the traditional public housing model toward one that emphasizes choice and a diversity of location outcomes through the HCV program.

There are many reasons for these policy and programmatic shifts, but one is undoubtedly the high crime rates that came to be the norm in and near far too many public housing developments. During the mid-20th century, when the vast majority of public housing units were created, they were frequently sited in undesirable areas that offered few amenities and contained high proportions of low-income and minority households. As poverty further concentrated in central cities due to the flight of higher-income (often white) households to the suburbs, many public housing developments became increasingly dangerous places to live. The physical design of public housing developments was also frequently problematic, with entire city blocks being taken up by large high-rises set back from the street, standing out as areas to avoid within their neighborhoods.

There are many quantitative summaries and anecdotal descriptions of the crime and violence present in some public housing developments from sources as diverse as journalists, housing researchers, and architects. Now that the shift to housing vouchers (and the low-income housing tax credit [LIHTC]) has been underway for over two decades, we have a good understanding of how effective these changes have been in reducing exposure to crime for subsidized households. Further, we are beginning to better understand the limitations of these efforts and why households are often unsuccessful in moving from high-crime areas.

In studies of moving housing voucher households away from crime, the following questions are of particular interest: What is the connection between subsidized housing and crime? What mechanisms of the housing voucher program work to allow households to live in lower-crime neighborhoods than public housing? And finally, how successful has this program been in reducing participant exposure to crime, and how do we explain some of the limitations?

While many aspects of the relationship between subsidized housing and crime are not well understood, existing research provides several important insights. First, we can conclude that traditional public housing—particularly large public housing developments—often concentrated crime to dangerously high levels. Second, we know that public housing residents commonly expressed great concern over the presence of crime and drugs in their communities, and this was a frequent motivation for participating in early studies of housing mobility programs such as Gautreaux in Chicago and the Moving to Opportunity experiment. Third, while the typical housing voucher household lives in a lower-crime environment than public housing households, they still live in relatively high-crime neighborhoods, and there is substantial research on the limited nature of moves using vouchers. Finally, while there is research on whether voucher households cause crime in the aggregate, the outcomes are rather ambiguous—some rigorous studies have found that clusters of voucher households increase neighborhood crime and some have found there is no effect. Furthermore, any potential effects on neighborhood crime by vouchers need to be weighed against their effectiveness at reducing exposure to neighborhood crime among subsidized households.

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