Arresting Tales

Section 8: helping the poor, or dispersing urban crime?

One of the things I like about blogging is the opportunity to engage with other people who have perspectives outside law enforcement.  One of the people I talk with regularly is Megan Cottrell, who writes about public housing issues at One Story Up

Megan recently sent me links to a couple of NPR features:

Mixed Results on Mixed-Income Chicago Public Housing

Chicago Public Housing Plan Marks 10 Years

Megan said that she was building a post around a comment she saw at the NPR site, and asked what I thought about it.  Here's her post:

NIMBY: if not in your backyard, then whose?

And here's the quote she opens with:

EJS, Jackson Park Highlands // Monday, October 05, 2009 @ 11:32 AM

Mixed - Income housing comes with a steep price indeed. Many of these individuals fail to assimilate and quickly revert to insidious taskings such as robbery, buglary, drug dealing, Et cetera. Last week a work crew was robbed at gunpoint next door and prior to that a neighbor at the next house down had a gun drawn on him while removing a childseat from his car right in front of his home. The excessive loitering, the front yard card games and barbeques as well as the makeshift candy stores should have been left in the projects! I cringed when I saw the Harold Ickes Homes being demolished, "More vouchers for South Shore!" I though to myself. My 1/2 million dollar home, my Mercedes and my executive status does not make me an inspiration to these people, it makes me a target! I always was taught that if you did not go to school and if you went down the wrong path you would wind up in the Projects, now they are in my neighborhood?!?!

In my opinion the commenter is not being racist, but is expressing a very real and legitimate fear of crime.  While the line about "excessive loitering, front yard card games and barbecues" might be insensitive, it reflects a valid concern for quality of life issues.  Not surprisingly, some of the people she spoke with found the comment "appalling". 

I don't get to meet any public housing success stories.  I don't get to meet that many success stories, period.  I understand that my limited experience and anecdotal evidence doesn't reflect the full impact of the Section 8 housing voucher program.   

From what I've seen, the arrival of Section 8 housing in a suburban community causes crime and police calls for service to spike up almost immediately.

I first became aware of the arrival of Section 8 tenants in the summer of 2003.  In one month our officers responded to domestic disputes 5 times at a single family residence.  The house was located on a quiet, tree-lined street full of other modest single family homes, and it's not a neighborhood that sees much police activity. 

Mom was the renter, along with 4 or 5 kids ranging in age from early 20's to toddler.  There were fights between mom and her ex-husband, mom and her children, the children and mom's new boyfriend, the ex-husband and the kids, and a few miscellaneous fights out in the front yard involving people whose relationship to the family we could never figure out.  In the course of 18 months, our police department went to that house at least 36 times, making multiple arrests for a variety of offenses.  Our contact with the family ended when they moved away.  The house was sold, and is now owner-occupied.  We haven't been back since. 

Our experience with that family made us wonder how many other Section 8 tenants we might have in town who might cause similar problems.  The answer is, the only way we find out that new Section 8 renters are at an address is by being called there to investigate a crime or disturbance.

We have a few townhouse complexes concentrated in one part of town.  The complexes have always been moderate income, but well-kept, and largely owner-occupied until the last few years.  In the summer of 2008, Gangster Disciple graffiti began appearing on several walls and fences in one of the neighborhoods.  There was also a marked increase in burglary and theft reports.  Finally, a robbery occurred in which a middle-aged man, sitting in his car waiting to pick up his child, was robbed by three youths armed with a knife and a rifle.

We began sending plainclothes and uniformed officers on foot through the complex at night, and we started talking to residents.  We found out that for every police report, at least 5 or 10 incidents had gone unreported.  Once we started walking around, neighbors approached us and complained of being harassed and intimidated by groups of young men loitering around some of the units.  We also discovered that, as real-estate values declined, a number of owners had chosen to rent their units, and at least some of those renters were Section 8 tenants.  In each case the pattern was the same: a single mother with a relatively clean background was the renter, and she was followed by an assortment of adult male relatives, ex-boyfriends and associates. 

Each time that I've talked with one of the renters, she's seemed genuinely willing to improve her life.  She has also seemed powerless to do anything about the behavior of her sons, or the other men in her life.  Those young men appear less interested in taking advantage of the schools, programs and jobs in their new neighborhood than they are in re-creating the urban blight and ghetto lifestyle that mom, auntie or grandma tried to move away from.
We eventually identified and arrested the three young men who committed the robbery.  One of them was also responsible for the gang graffiti and some other thefts.  They were charged as adults, pleaded guilty, and are now on probation--convicted felons before the age of 18.  These kids have had access to the exact opportunities--education, after school activities and jobs--that are being called for as an antidote to street violence in the aftermath of the Derrion Albert murder .  They had all that, and yet they chose to be thugs. 

I'm sorry if I sound harsh, but I'm not the only one who has reached this conclusion.  While it's easy for defenders of the Section 8 program to call opponents elitist, classist, or racist, remember this: these renters aren't being dropped into neighborhoods like Barrington, Winnetka or Kenilworth.  They are being placed in working class and lower-income neighborhoods, and the people who feel the brunt of the crime and dysfunction that follows are often themselves fighting their way out of poverty. 

An article that appeared in the National Housing Institute's Shelterforce Online journal focuses on a "transitional neighborhood" in Baltimore called Patterson Park.  The head of a community development group describes Section 8 as

"...a catalyst in neighborhood deterioration and ghetto expansion...Once a neighborhood has some problems, Section 8 accelerates those problems."

An article in the Autumn 2000 City Journal looks at problems with Section 8 in Philadelphia, Prince Georges County in Maryland, and Chicago:

"It has touched every aspect of the city government," says Riverdale mayor Joe Szabo...

Demands have risen, though, for other sorts of public services. EMT crews respond to emergency calls to find callers, accustomed to city emergency rooms, simply saying they're "feeling ill." Riverdale's Potter elementary school, once boasting a top academic reputation, now has the state's highest student turnover. Student achievement has dropped--putting paid to the idea that shipping poor families to good schools in the suburbs will cause an education ethic to rub off. Instead, the concentration of disorganized families has undermined a once good school. School funds, says the mayor, must now be diverted to the legions of "special needs" students. Crime is up, too--"we have real legitimate gang issues now," the mayor says--and the city has had to increase its police force by 35 percent, from 26 to 35. That's pushing the tax rate up, which the mayor fears will discourage new home buyers, pushing the small city into a cycle of decline.

Then there's Memphis, Tennessee.  Megan told me about this story in The Atlantic: American Murder Mystery.  The article focuses on the spread of crime throughout Memphis as large housing projects were torn down, and the residents dispersed throughout the metropolitan area.  The article mentions similar experiences in Louisville, Kentucky and in Chicago.  If you're feeling especially like a policy wonk, you can check out a paper by George Galster of Wayne State University that gets referenced in the Atlantic piece.  It's titled "Consequences From the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990's: A Cautionary Tale".

I don't know what the solutions are to the problems of providing affordable housing and helping people out of poverty.  I do know that most people are rightfully wary of the crime and dysfunction that follows Section 8 into their neighborhoods, and they don't deserve to suffer the results of our good intentions.



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Mike d said:


Wow. Im not really sure what to say, other then this was very informative and eye opening. I can see how this might be viewed as insensitive but I think the truth speaks for itself. The Section 8 program will continue to get a bad rap until the people in the program decide to be more accountable. Great post.

Wendy C said:


My husband and I own a home in a lower middle-class neighborhood. For many years, the house next door was Section 8. A couple of times, some nice people lived there. Most of the time, the renters were as you described, above. The behavior of these families is pretty much anti-social; they don't believe society's rules apply to them, so they really don't care how their behavior effects those who have the misfortune to live close by. Which makes live hell for neighbors and law enforcement, alike.

I think a law needs to be passed regarding Section 8 status for these families. They should lose this status if more than two complaints are made to police involving criminal activity or even calls to the home to break up disruptive behavior.

And I think neighbors should be able to take legal action against the slum-type landlords who rent out their 'barely passing code' homes to these people. Why should the property value of my home decrease, so they can make a few bucks off the government?

Dr X said:

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What isn't clear is the percentage of Section 8 renters who actually present these problems. How many of the poor are helped without harming their neighbors or the neighborhood in any way? I would hate to see the chronically ill, the disabled or people who've been devastated by personal tragedy locked out of the opportunity to move away from high-crime neighborhoods and lousy housing.

My office is in a downtown high rise, now condos but originally rental units. While it was still a rental property, the building included some Section 8 units in compliance with special consideration granted for the original construction of the building (like substandard elevators that once nearly severed a tenant's body in half when a car took off with passengers boarding--the problem has been fixed). In the 16 years we've been there, we've had no problems with Section 8 renters that I'm aware of. Most of the Section 8 residents are mentally or physically disabled individuals who continue to rent from investors who bought units during the conversion.

But as Wendy points out, there ought to be some sort of process that makes eviction relatively easy. If you're housed on the public dime, you've got to mind your P's and Q's--that goes for the men around you, as well. It's harsh, but it isn't fair to impose gangbangers and thugs on the neighbors who are supporting you.

Joe the Cop said:


Dr X, you bring up a good point--a lot of the vouchers go to elderly and disabled people who do not bring the kind of problems I was talking about.

jmj said:

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I bet the people who found those comments "harsh" would think very differently if this happened in their neighborhood! I have always believed that public aid should be limited. Once you've used your 3 years (or whatever) you need to get a job! Put an end to this generational welfare. Its all they know-we need the government to make them clean, or shovel or whatever. Stop the handouts!

JMHO said:

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Prior to moving to Chicago area, I owned a home in Memphis. Everything was fine until the number of Section 8 rentals on my block increased. The tone and safety of the neighborhood changed fairly quickly (less that 3 years). What was once a very peaceful neighborhood, became open season on the homeowners. While in theory I support the IDEA of Section 8 housing, in it's current form it's bad policy. Essentially you're using tax payer dollars to subsidize housing for a percentage of people who have no desire to assimilate into the neighborhoods around them and thus essentially terrorize its residents. I agree with other posters that there needs to be strict rules and requirements for the people who qualify for Section 8 housing. If you have repeated and valid disturbance calls (3 strikes), then you are out of the program. This should also include abiding by city ordinances, upkeep of the property, and unfortunately controlling your children. Additionally, if it is a single mother who qualifies for Section 8 housing then moving in her boyfriend or any other persons who are not her children should definitely disqualify her from the program. If the cycle of entitlement programs is to end then there should also be milestones that indicate that these families are transitioning out of these types of programs. It should be essential that the educational achievements of children in these families is monitored. I am not saying that each child has to have the grades to get into Harvard, but they should graduate high school, develop a skill or have the grades that could get them into college. Essentially they should be employable. At some point shouldn't we weigh the costs of continued access to these programs versus the costs monitoring to achieve movement out of the program.

What I noticed in my experience is that most of the children were neglected, did poorly in school, and education was not stressed as a way to get out of their situation. Instead materialism ruled. There was a fierce concentration in how to "get over" doing minimal work. I hate to say it but my experience really made me think twice about forced sterilization.

The other thing is that the residents of the neighborhood need to have some sort of recourse when these housing situations go badly. After having bullet ricochet off my home in Memphis and I reported the incident to the local agency, I was told that there was nothing that I could do as a homeowner to stem to have those tenants removed.

I was often amazed that with at least 7 people living in one house, no one bothered to put away trash cans after the garbage had been picked up by the city. If there was trash that had been blown into the front yard, no one picked it up and in fact additions were made. Grass was generally uncut and if it was cut it was very shabby. The blinds in the windows were broken, the trees were cut down, and the children generally roamed during all hours in spite of the curfew. At one point we had to figure out who was the parent of one little girl because we never saw her mother. When we finally found the mother and went to explain to her that her young daughter (8 y.o.) was roaming about the neighborhood, the mother was more upset that we disturbed her sleeping. Unfortunately I moved before I could report this to DCFS. This was definitely a case of child endangerment.

I am not offended by Ms. Cotrell's blog. I am a reasonably educated, single African-American woman with no kids who grew up very poor. No, I am not. Until we can accept that this is problem and stop living behind political correctness and misguided altruism, I am not hopeful that it will get any better.

If I offend, sorry...

Joe the Cop said:


JMHO, thanks very much for your comment. Your comment is an eye-opener. Like I said in my post, it's not affluent or upper-class whites who are suffering the consequences of scattered site Section 8 housing.

irishpirate said:


I'm not opposed to Section 8 housing. I am opposed to Section 8 housing where the tenants are not held to high standards of behavior. Giving decent folks the chance to get away from negative situations is in society's best interest.

That means harsh screening and tough rules. It should also mean expedited eviction procedures with the appropriate legal and judical resources necessary to enforce quick evictions.

Concentrating Section 8 housing is also wrong. There should be a limited number of vouchers in a given area. Exceptions could be given for the elderly and handicapped as they generally aren't out committing street crime. Now if granny is in a wheelchair and wielding a bat while rolling around the neighborhood then she needs to go too.

By tough standards I mean that for the tenants and their guests.

That means if granny has a thug grandson he needs to stay away or she needs to lose her voucher. It's a tough thing, but in the end it is in the interest of the majority of folks in a given neighborhood.

reallyhurtin said:

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This assumes that there are competent, professional intelligent, organized and compassionate people running the section 8 programs. I found that the 2 section 8 developments I lived in were run by completely unethical idiots. In fact in one of the places the maintenance men were stealing from us tenants! What kind of example is that? When we reported it to management it was denied up the wazooo!

ChicagoNonYankee said:

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Mixed housing will never work for the simple fact that you cant mix the haves with the have not's, its like putting a kid in a candy store and telling the kid to eat spinach. The big issue is assimilation, I live in a northshore burb and we have one sec8 townhouse, the people never mingle with the rest of the neighbors despite all of us reaching out and inviting them to block parties, the kids all under 10 roam unattended, the yard is not cared for and we have had to have additional patrols just to make sure we don't have some of the issues stated above. Perhaps the answer is some form of mainstreaming that will gradually assimilate the people leaving the projects into the whole of society. Starting with basic education on how to live in a non project environment.

Moshucat said:

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Our block was a City Model Block in Woodlawn until absentee landlords got hold of a couple of properties on our block. They immediately put Section 8 tenants in. First we had to ask them not to BBQ on the front sidewalk, then one put his workout bench out front and lifted weights, then kids from 2 ot 10 woulod be out in the street playing ball, hitting the cars and dodging traffic. We finally formed a "Problem Building Committee" working with CPD the city and the landlords on complaints. We also met wit HUD and CHA and had an office opened to help re-train CHA residents how to live in our neighborhoods. For a time it worked but suddenly our crime went up, garages, homes and cars were broken into loud parties, cars double parking blocking our streets. We finally had to turn it over to CPD.

ScottD said:

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This is THE dumbest things I've read in a long time---and I read a lot. You are saying that for some reason "white" people deserve to be around crime and blight for some reason?

Well, I am "white", grew up very poor and was able to work hard , go to college--and grad school-- (w/o affirmative action)and buy a very modest middle class condo. My life is ruined because of dysfunctional subsidized sec8 creeps moving in and bringing noise and blight to my building. My rich friends do not have to deal with this issue because, they are rich and do not have to live near blight.

Why should I pay tax dollars and association fees to support drug addicted slugs who contribute nothing to society? You are also racist because you assume that there are no middle-upper-class people of color.

Megan, i'd suggest you learn more about the world before polluting it with your misinformation and naivety....not to mention self-hate.

If you are suppose to be the future of this country, I'm seriously thinking of expatriating. Your generation is going to be the first to bring developing country status to the USA and I wish you wallow in the cesspool you create for yourself!

reallyhurtin said:

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wish i were in a position where i could safely transmit my story electronically. if i could do that, my blog would get thousands of hits a day. after 12 years of cycling in and out of homelessness-i anticipated i'd likely "crawl" into my finally awarded section 8 unit in june 05, and that i'd recover from all i had been thru. oh much to my surprise, i have spent the last 5.5 years dealing with burglaries, torture, sleep deprivation, serious illness and disability, police and media indifference. now more then life itself, all i really care is that my story gets published before i die. and by the way, i am a college graduate. i did not fall homeless until AFTER receiving my bachelors in social work. i have been working my ass off non stop for almost 18 years for a normal life and i am still living in crushing poverty and constant danger in section 8

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