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Op-ed raises old housing assistance stereotype

 by Sarah Jawaid, National Housing Conference

James Bovard got it so wrong. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Raising hell in subsidized housing” he ignores the Section 8 program’s long history of housing some of the most vulnerable in our society—approximately 36% percent of Section 8 renters are elderly or disabled—while also strengthening communities and supporting families. Instead he attacks the program as an incubator for crime. This is an old stereotype, and the evidence often cited to support it mostly just illustrates the unsurprising coincidence of poverty and crime. But Bovard’s claim that to reduce crime, specifically homicide, we must reduce Section 8 assistance, is logically fallacious.

The evidence Bovard offers to support his claim is weak. He cites an Indianapolis Housing Authority (IHA) study that states 80% of “criminal homicides in Marion County, Ind. links to individuals fraudulently obtaining federal assistance in either the public housing or Section 8 program administered by the agency.” Bovard doesn’t unpack what this statistic means. It could mean that 80% of all Indianapolis murderers were fraudulently trying to obtain fraudulent vouchers. It could also indicate that 80% of all murderers in Indianapolis might have known a lower-income person who had trouble with their Section 8 paperwork. Bovard never makes that “link” between murderers and housing voucher frauds clear. To further muddle his point, he also doesn’t draw a distinction between residents of public housing and Section 8 recipients. So, it does little more than show that poverty and crime are somehow linked, which just isn’t news.

Bovard further ignores the result of the Indianapolis study. How did IHA address criminal activity in its “public housing program [and] Section 8 program”? The agency received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Justice to crackdown on criminal activity that led to hundreds of arrests and reduction in crime, illustrating the value of better coordination between local police departments and housing assistance offices, rather than a reduction of housing assistance.

Bovard goes on to quote Geetha Suresh of her research of Louisville, Kentucky over a 19 year period, saying, “homicide was simply moved to a new location, not eliminated.” But her intent was not to say that public housing and Section 8 is the problem, merely that public housing and Section 8 has been linked to crime in Louisville, Kentucky. She says, “although low-income public housing itself may be safe, it draws offenders to victims and produces an elevated crime risk (Suresh & Vito, 2007).” *

Section 8 vouchers are designed to serve as a support system for families looking to move upward, and part of that is providing affordable housing in communities with employment, good schools, and social services. A study conducted in Denver found that “poorly maintained and managed rental housing, unsavory commercial establishments, gang activity, substance abuse, unsupervised teens, and transients were the main source of crime, not supportive housing (Galster et al., 2002).” The Section 8 program is providing over 2 million very low-income households with opportunities to find safe and affordable housing. Reducing Section 8 subsidy certainly isn’t going to reduce crime; in fact, with no way out of unsafe environments, more criminal activity is likely.

Bovard’s final logical leap, that allowing Section 8 recipients to rent apartments outside of poverty-concentrated neighborhoods will “wreck” other neighborhoods is simply unsupported. The real risk communities face is in the loss of essential support systems like Section 8 that helps people maintain households through periods of unemployment and economic disruption.


*Suresh further states that “research on the nature of these homicides (i.e. victim/offender relationship, if they were related to drug deal or domestic violence) is needed to analyze and help determine whether public housing residents are victims and/or offenders. If public housing residents are victims, public housing policy and revitalization need to focus on providing defensible space to protect tenants. If the public housing residents are offenders due to economic oppression and poverty, public housing revitalization policy should focus on bringing economic growth and development of those areas with high opportunities for employment and income generation” (Suresh, 2009).

Galster, Georgel, et al., (2002).The impact of supportive housing on neighborhood crime rates. Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 24, Iss. 3; p. 289-316

Suresh, G., & Vito, G. (2007). The tragedy of public housing: Spatial analysis of hotspots of aggravated assaults in Louisville, KY (1989-1998). American Journal of Criminal Justice, 32, 99-115.

Suresh, G., & Vito, G. (2009). Homicide Patterns and Public Housing: The Case of Louisville, KY (1989-2007.) Homicide Studies, Vol. 13, Iss. 4; pg. 411.

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