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The Rand Corp. finally put numbers to something everyone knew—that public-housing developments are crime ridden, drug infested, and dangerous. So why did the Department of Justices’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) fund the Randies to the tune of $198,000 to prove the obvious?
“It’s a well-known and strongly-held belief that housing developments are bad places. But there was hardly any data,” says the study’s principal author, Terence Dunworth, who investigated public-housing facilities in Washington, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. “Our idea was “let’s get an empirical situation that would allow housing authorities to justify requests to treat the problem.’ ” Without hard data, Dunworth says, public-housing authorities don’t make the most of their resources and are too often guided by political pressure or public-policy fads.
The 107-page Rand study, published in August 1993, was prompted by Jack Kemp’s 1989 tour of housing developments in Baltimore and Philadelphia, where the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) witnessed illicit drug transactions. When Kemp queried the nation’s 3,000 housing agencies about drug trafficking in the projects, they acknowledged its prevalence but said they lacked the data to assess its scale.
Which is where the Santa Monica-based think tank came in. Dunworth et al. fed Rand’s data-base software a rich diet of three years of census tract data for the projects and comparable neighborhoods, development information and vacancy rates, and police reports. Then they painstakingly compared the results within each metropolis, and between the three cities. By pinpointing law enforcement activity, they hoped to verify that crime rates in the projects were higher than demographically similar neighborhoods devoid of public-housing units and to devise strategies for combating crime and the drug trade.
The need for hard statistical information seemed especially urgent because, despite major funding from a federal drug-reduction effort called the Public Housing Drug Elimination Program (PHDEP), most previous attempts to reduce drug trafficking had failed. Enacted in the waning days of the Reagan administration, the PHDEP in 1993 granted about $160 million to state and local housing authorities for drug treatment, education, prevention, and enforcement programs for the country’s 3.5 million public housing residents—about $46 per tenant.
To no one’s great surprise, the Rand study showed that housing projects act as a magnet for criminal activity—on average, projects do have higher crime rates than nearby communities that are socioeconomically similar.
However, crime rates vary dramatically among different developments in each of the test cities of D.C., LA, and Phoenix. In D.C., for instance, some projects have lower incidents of crime than demographically comparable neighborhoods, and even than the city as a whole. But “problem projects” like Southeast’s Stanton Dwellings have crime rates three times that of D.C. Similarly, some projects record many more drug arrests than others, even if they have similar overall crime rates.
Disparate crime rates necessitate funding triage, says Dunworth. “We’ve got to make some decisions,” he says. “Who’s bleeding most badly, and who is in pain but doesn’t need radical surgery right away?”
But housing agencies tend to blindly throw their money at the crime problem, instead of directing more funds to projects on the critical list. More than half of America’s housing agencies still spread their PHDEP grant money equally between all the domiciles in their domain. Unable to quantify varying crime rates or specific needs of individual developments, housing authorities have difficulty justifying another course of action—especially in the face of politicians and bureaucrats who all want their “fair” share of the housing budget. Advocates like Rick Nelson, executive director of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), want residences not yet in severe crisis to be a budget priority.
“There’s no perfect system of how to divide limited resources,” says Nelson. “But we feel it would be disastrous to allow these areas to blossom into disaster zones.”
Yet by August, HUD started a triage program of their own called the Urban Revitalization Demonstration (URD). URD targets $300 million dollars to “severely distressed” publicly funded dwellings. But HUD got more than it bargained for. To qualify as “severely distressed,” projects must suffer dramatically from an array of problems. Yet 41 housing agencies passed the eligibility test. HUD was only able to fully fund eight, and partially fund another seven—including those in D.C. and L.A.
Many project residents live in a state of siege, avoiding stray bullets by vacating the streets and hallways after dusk and bedding their babies in bathtubs. The Rand study may have scientifically validated that these tenants live with more crime than any other city residents, but how much more is still unknown.
Underreporting of crime, even violent crime, is epidemic among all poor communities due to distrust of the police, fear of retaliation, and general apathy. And project residents, who often can’t afford property insurance, lack a major motivation to report theft and property crime. Whatever the cause, underreporting means that police reports present an inaccurate measure of crime. “For instance, in D.C., Barry Farms [in Southeast] registered with the lowest crime rate, much lower than the city itself. But the police and everyone we talked to says that just isn’t true, it’s a very tough place,” says Dunworth.
The NIJ chose not to fund the next round of Rand research because they felt Dunworth failed to bridge the gap between real and reported crime. But Dunworth says this impasse has always hampered examinations of poor communities. “In order to overcome the failings with the police data, you’d have to conduct phone and mail surveys—but historically they don’t work too well in these communities,” says Dunworth. “So you’d have to also use direct observation, and talk to community leaders—use focus groups. It’s a huge undertaking—who would fund it?” Dunworth adds that the head of LA’s housing authority jokingly advised the Rand analysts to live in a vacant unit so that they could see the crime problem firsthand. “Then we could tell him. But I figured I wouldn’t survive that.”
Not only is project crime relatively uncharted, there is a paucity of hard data on public-housing programs’ successes or failures to combat the lawbreaking. “Housing agencies often do not even have very basic data, like how many of their units are occupied,” says Christopher Walker, senior analyst at the Urban Institute. “And certainly not enough to make competent program reviews or analysis.” Had it been awarded an additional $248,000 for research, Rand intended to monitor and assess the efforts of LA’s police and housing authority to stem crime and drug use over a two-year period. Some LA projects use a controversial system of fences and checkpoints to reduce crime, a defensive measure some say relocates crime to surrounding communities, rather than reducing it. If Rand’s appraisal of programs like these was successful, other cities could fashion similar data bases to evaluate their own programs. Greensboro could judge the proficiency of its community policing; Phoenix, its foot patrols; Alexandria, its drug-treatment program.
Eventually, wisdom from these patchy pockets of data could be transferred from one city to another. Municipalities could assess similarly sized, populated, and ethnically composed public-housing populations and make a knowledgeable determination of whether or not their reforms would work at home. Langley Keyes, author of Strategies and Saints: Fighting Drugs in Subsidized Housing and professor of urban studies at MIT, says that the transferability of programs from one locale to another is the key issue in public housing today. “They might have a great program in Phoenix—but would it work in LA? What are the buildings like? Do [the dealers] sell heroin or crack, are the gang structures similar, are the projects similar? There are so many variables.”
Besides predicting if reforms can be grafted from one city to another, data bases could also resolve debates that have long raged within the public-housing arena. Residents frequently claim that police avoid the projects, concentrating patrols instead in wealthier (and safer) neighborhoods. The tri-city study showed that arrest rates in subsidized developments were proportional to crime rates, but as Nelson points out, those numbers can be misleading since one drug bust can yield a dozen arrests. But a data base could be modified to monitor the number of police dispatches, and even response times, to the projects.
Suspicions that much project crime is committed by outsiders who come to sell drugs and generally prey on the tenants New Jack City-style could also be substantiated if data bases incorporated addresses of victims and perpetrators.
When information on project crime was largely theoretical and anecdot al, policy makers cried out to quantify it. Once enumerated, they want to humanize it. The shift, Dunworth says, is ironic.
But the debate over Rand’s methodology was only one factor in this policy paradox. Dunworth did include interviewing residents and housing authorities and other “softer measures” of gauging crime in his proposal for the two-year study of LA. “I don’t know why it wasn’t satisfactory,” says Dunworth, who plans to resubmit the proposal and hopes for support from both NIJ and HUD.
The fate of the Rand research may ultimately have more to do with the quixotic nature of public policy. Bureaucrats and politicians search in vain for a “silver bullet” that will quickly solve the public-housing dilemma, says Keyes.
This panacea-oriented approach creates a revolving door of theories and programs that are briefly tested as the projects continue to deteriorate. “These issues and discoveries are perennial,” Keyes says. “First we had defensible space, then it was the oasis system, then turf reclamation, then community involvement. What’s really important is do we learn anything, and do we act? JamesJulius Wilson would argue that we are not going to help public housing unless we radically restructure our society. And who would disagree? But tomorrow is Wednesday, and we’re not going to transform the country overnight. We are not prepared, and not able, to have a war on poverty.”
The expectations of public housing have grown dramatically since World War II, when the projects were constructed to house the working poor. As each year the buildings transformed into warehouses for the underclass, housing agencies found themselves required to dispense more and more social programs—services that used to be provided by other branches of government.
But without the financial support and role models of a real community, the projects concentrate social decay and economic stress, and the meager funds allocated to housing authorities won’t stifle the burgeoning crime problem unless more reform programs somehow shuffle low-income people in with the middle class.
The eternal policy debate has become an effective smoke screen for policy makers who are unwilling or unable to commit to true reform, says Keyes. “What’s the trade-off between better data and cost-effectiveness?” he says. “Where should the money go? On the one hand, there is [Charles] Murray’s Losing Ground, which says that all governmental intervention is a failure. Another is the scientific extreme. It wants to analyze all the hundreds of variables of failed programs, suggested by the previous bunch from the Rand Corporation, to see where we went wrong. The world is more complicated than that.”
Dunworth concedes that a more precise understanding of drugs and crime in the projects is only the beginning of a solution. “Nobody I know has any answers,” he says. “We can say in the abstract, “These people need better opportunities.’ But what opportunities, and who will provide them? This won’t solve all the problems, but at least we’d have better information about existing conditions, at very least we’d make policy decisions after measuring the effects of programs over time. We’d be better off than where we are. I think about the saying “better to light a candle than curse the darkness’ a lot. We’re just trying to light a candle so we don’t keep stubbing our toes.”