The towering public housing developments that stood in cities like New York and Chicago were often referred to as “warehouses of the poor,” a place where poverty was concentrated into one section of town.

In 1992, HUD launched HOPE VI, a program aimed at the redevelopment of distressed public housing. HOPE VI was going to correct these concentrations of poverty by replacing them with mixed-income communities, which would integrate public housing residents with the rest of the city. And in many ways, HOPE VI was a success, stabilizing some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

Yet the program’s focus on mixing incomes and reducing density resulted in the loss of more than 100,000 units of affordable housing, estimates the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). Only a fraction—usually about a third—of the public housing units that were demolished to make way for mixed-income communities were replaced.

“When you see a presentation on HOPE VI, 99 percent of it is the storefront, the fountains, the paved sidewalks. Where did the people go?” says Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy and research at the Washington, D.C.-based NLIHC. “You don’t see them, because they’re not there. If you’re going to rip up people’s communities, who’s the developer, or HUD, or Congress to say we’ve decided that only some of you can stay?”

One-for-one replacement was a requirement until 1998, when Congress repealed the policy. But the tide is turning. Whereas HOPE VI focused on severely distressed public housing only, its successor, the Choice Neighborhoods program, focuses on entire neighborhoods as well as the public housing within. Last year, HUD awarded five Choice Neighborhoods grants totaling $122 million, and each one of those communities committed to doing one-for-one replacement of the public housing units.

“What mixed income redevelopment ended up meaning to most public housing residents was the loss of their housing,” says Couch. “And I think that was a lesson that stuck with HUD.”  

Where have they gone?

One of the biggest criticisms of the early HOPE VI developments was a lack of focus on relocation services. Many displaced residents ended up moving to areas that were every bit as bad as the ones they were leaving.

"The field gained experience with HOPE VI over time, but in many of the earlier projects around the country, there was a huge missed opportunity to improve the life outcomes of the original residents through relocation to neighborhoods with better schools and access to jobs,” says Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Housing Policy. “In many cases, large numbers of residents did not return to the revitalized developments which meant that relocation was the only intervention they experienced.  By investing more resources in the relocation process, we could have capitalized on this process to transform the lives of the original residents as well as the original neighborhood."

A new study by the Urban Institute and Emory University attempts to measure the effect of these mass relocations—specifically, how it affected crime rates in parts of Chicago and Atlanta. More than 6,400 households were relocated by the Chicago Housing Authority to private homes between 1999 and 2008, while Atlanta relocated about 10,000 families between 1996 and 2011.

The study found that throughout Chicago, the overall violent crime decreased by 1 percent, and gun crimes dropped 4.4 percent, between 2000 and 2008. And the impact on those neighborhoods with demolished public housing was much bigger—violent crime fell over 60 percent, and property crime went down almost 50 percent, according to the study. The relocation efforts in Atlanta are credited with dropping violent crime in that city by 0.7 percent.

But the findings weren’t entirely positive. The study goes on to say that neighborhoods with a concentration of relocated families saw crime rates rise. In Chicago, areas with moderate concentrations of relocated households saw violent crime rates increase 13 percent, and neighborhoods with high concentrations saw a 21 percent climb in violent crime rates. The study notes that many of those areas where public housing residents relocated were already challenged because of existing crime and poverty.

Show us the money

Though Congress is again emphasizing the importance of one-for-one replacement, it isn’t exactly making it easy to do. There are other ways to replace units while reducing density, such as in scattered site development. But it’s an expensive enterprise, and the federal funds just aren’t there.

“This is a classic situation of an unfunded mandate, which Congress does all the time,” says Richard Baron, founder of St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar. “They can write anything they want in the authorization language. The problem is, they never appropriate the funds. It’s a cruel hoax.” 

To advocates, the bigger issue is whether these redevelopments had a positive effect on public housing residents. Some would say there’s little evidence to back up the assertion that public housing residents’ lives were improved, or that they’ve effectively been integrated with the rest of the city.

“There’s been no research that says income mixing helps low-income people,” says Couch. “And I haven’t convinced myself that it’s not OK for poor people to live next to one another if they want to.”