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Is there a relationship between housing policy and violence?

Chicago neighborhoodBy Sylvester Monroe
Special to the NNPA from the Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk

CHICAGO — Most people agree that high-rise housing projects in Chicago like Cabrini Green needed to be demolished. But the neighborhoods where many of the former project residents ended up often weren’t much better than the projects themselves. Moving project residents into new neighborhoods created tensions with established residents and that sometimes led to violence. In fact, some say public housing policy is one of the causes of violence in some poor Chicago neighborhoods.

Jamika Smith lives in a Chicago-style bungalow with her husband and baby daughter on the South side of the city. But she grew up in a housing project on the city’s West Side. As she recalls, it was not such a bad life.

“You could leave your doors open,” Smith says. “Everyone knew each other, and it was just this close-knit community.”

But it didn’t stay idyllic for long. Soon drugs moved in, and upstanding residents moved out. And life got tougher.

“We were just like, oh, they’re hanging out on the corners now,” says Smith. “All of a sudden, you just see the rise of violence in the community. And people just could not walk up and down the streets because they’d get shot.”

Smith moved out of the projects, went to college in Tennessee and eventually ended up in Marquette Park on the Southwest side — just in time to greet an influx of residents relocated from demolished housing projects all over the city, many with competing gang affiliations.

“For example, you may have been ‘Cabrini Green,’ that’s one gang,” says Smith. “And then you have the ‘Horners,’ who are another. And you put them all in one community area. Then you have war.”

Such violence has now found its way to Smith’s current neighborhood. Yellow police tape near a blood spot on the pavement marks the area where a 17-year-old boy was shot five times, just blocks away from Jamika Smith’s house.

Chicago is, in fact, something of a war zone today. More people were killed in the city last year than U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. But did tearing down the projects cause the recent explosion in violence?

“I think the good news is that after we tore the high rises down, we moved thousands of families into other areas of the city and that crime was reduced I think as much as 60 percent at transformation sites,” says Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority.

By transformation sites, Woodyard means places where the high-rises once stood.

Woodyard also says crime didn’t go up in most of the neighborhoods where former project residents moved. “There were a handful of exceptions, though, and it’s all about concentration,” he says. “What I mean by that is the number of these relocated households compared to the number of households in the neighborhood that they live in.”

Put another way, if too many people from the projects ended up in one neighborhood, there was trouble.

But Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute warns against oversimplifying the violence problem in neighborhoods where former project residents now use rent vouchers. “The Section 8 (voucher) holders tend to move to places where rents are low already and crime is already high,” Popkin says.

For more stories from the Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk, visit


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