HUD officials and affordable housing advocates all over the country read the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic magazine with great interest. In it was “American Murder Mystery,” an investigative story that shed light on a long standing rumor about housing vouchers—that crime rises in areas with high concentrations of Section 8 voucher holders.
The story uses first-hand information from Lt. Doug Barnes, a veteran Memphis cop, as well as research from Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis, and her husband Richard Janikowski, a criminologist with the University of Memphis, to paint a controversial picture of the crime patterns in the city.
Since 1997, Memphis has demolished tens of thousands of public housing units and dispersed those residents throughout the city with Section 8 vouchers, which allow them to pay a reduced rent. With crime on the increase, Betts and Janikowski began mapping violent incidents across the city and made the discovery that crime followed Section 8 voucher holders to their new communities.
Officials at HUD also read the story with interest but believe there are other factors that could have led to the spikes in crime. “You can say there's a pattern between voucher holders and higher crime, but we don't know that to be the case,” says Todd Richardson, senior program analyst at HUD. “What are the other things that are going on? Were these already high poverty neighborhoods where you would expect to find higher crime rates? Were they neighborhoods in decline?”
Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group dedicated to ending America's affordable housing crisis, cautions that the article didn't say the Section 8 voucher holders committed the crimes. But she acknowledges that crime following such residents is a cause for concern. Still, she says these articles and studies could embolden NIMBYism and people in opposition to housing assistance. “I think it gives more ammunition to people who want to get rid of federal housing assistance,” Crowley says.