A photo of an Oakland public housing community.
In this Oakland development, open stairways and ample lighting help create a sense of security. Michael Pyatok

Despite their fearsome reputation, a new study finds most low-income housing projects aren't magnets for crime. What makes some more dangerous?

Ask lifelong San Antonio resident and activist Jason Mata about crime in low-income housing and he becomes animated. Several public housing projects sit in Prospect Hills, his West Side neighborhood, and safety there is a daily concern. “Every day I wake up, and half a block or maybe a block away, there’s 20 to 30 people congregating, drinking, selling drugs, prostitution,” said Mata, who is also president of his neighborhood association. “That’s what we see every day here.”

Scenes like the one Mata describes also form the prevailing media image of low-income housing developments. But a new study of San Antonio suggests that, despite its fearsome reputation, most low-income housing isn’t dangerous at all, either to residents or neighbors who live nearby. The great majority of crime in the city’s projects is concentrated in just a few high-risk developments.

When researchers Marie Skubak Tillyer and Rebecca Walter looked at data from the San Antonio Housing Authority, they found that 72 percent of violent crime, 87 percent of drug crime, and 72 percent of property crime occurred at just 5 percent of all properties, the study, published by Crime and Delinquency, reports. “It’s not the case that they’re all sort of equally dangerous,” Tillyer told me. “A small proportion of places account for an overwhelming majority of crime.”

These findings are consistent with a wide range of previous research on crime and place. It turns out that low-income housing developments that are “hot spots” for crime tend to share certain characteristics. Some are large-scale, structural factors, like concentrated disadvantage and residential instability in the properties’ surrounding neighborhoods. But others are smaller-scale—and more easily fixable—matters of place, like a lack of basic security and design features. The study looked at the presence of practical (if depressingly carceral-seeming) features like secured entrances, strongly enforced visitor policies, bars or lattices on the windows, surveillance cameras, and routine patrols. The safer developments were equipped with more of them; the more dangerous ones had fewer.

“We found that housing developments with more security and design features that are aimed at reducing criminal opportunities had lower violent, drug, and property crime,” said Tillyer. “So it suggests that investing in those sorts of things can actually be really beneficial for residents.”

This might sound obvious, but these findings hold important implications for making low-income housing safer, not just in San Antonio but nationwide. Many postwar public housing complexes became synonymous with urban dysfunction—think Chicago’s Cabrini Green or St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe. Those high-rises may be gone, but the image of low-income residential projects as crime magnets lingers on. Today, some cities are considering building more enlightened kinds of public housing. A better understanding of how these spaces deter rather than attract crime can help cities devote resources to the developments that are most vulnerable, and also invest in design features that improve places, rather than spending more money on policing.

“We focus so much on the offender as the unit of analysis that we don’t think about the place as being a really important construct to understanding crime,” said Tillyer. “There are a lot of entities that have an interest in crime prevention who don’t have the means or the authority to intervene on individuals.” In other words, a safer public housing project is one that allows residents to advocate for themselves. An organized neighborhood association or tenants union can demand improvements to its environment, and a housing authority can carry them out, without having authority over the people who are committing crime.

In San Antonio, for example, the Prospect Hills neighborhood association works closely with tenants of the public housing developments, Mata said, in advocating for environmental improvements like more lighting: “There are dark areas, and we’ve always requested that lighting be part of whatever improvements are coming in.” Consistent with the study’s findings about secured entrances, he also agreed that “anything that’s kind of like a gated community” in low-income housing could make these places safer, noting that the developments in his neighborhood don’t have a guard or attendant.

But Mata is convinced that community participation is more important than conventional security features as a means to make the area safer. Some housing projects are doing well, he said; others seem lawless and are beset by shootings. The big difference, in his view, is whether the residents are active.

Open walkways in a low-income housing complex in Seattle are visible to everyone, on every other floor. (Courtesy Michael Pyatok)

Progressive designers of low-income housing tend to agree. Michael Pyatok, an Oakland-based architect, has spent his career thinking about projects that foster safety and encourage community participation. Instead of security features like cameras and window bars, his practice exalts “eyes on the street,” that touchstone of post-Jane Jacobs urban planning. “You build in the social surveillance without having to rely on hardware and cameras,” Pyatok said.

Pyatok takes pains to avoid “double-loaded corridors,” where apartments sit on both sides of an enclosed hallway and visibility is low. These have long been understood as a liability. He favors low-rise family housing—the kind that’s prevalent in San Antonio—with single-loaded corridors and an outside balcony. This offers greater visibility, not to mention better natural light and ventilation. Stairways should be designed to avoid hidden spaces. Well-lit common areas, visible from the buildings, should allow residents to congregate, socialize, and get to know each other.

Even in the older-style high-rise developments, Pyatok said, there are design tweaks that can improve safety. If you put fewer units behind each entrance and give the residents key-fob access, the wings of a large building can become neighborhoods of their own; small groups of responsible residents can “territorialize” this space and create natural social control.

In each case, the crux is to cultivate circumstances where rich associations—and, ultimately, tenant organization—can flourish. “The more social life that you can build into the ground floor activities, the better,” said Pyatok. “The more social life you can build into the corridors in the upper reaches of the building, the better.”

In this Seattle development, bay windows allow residents to look up and down a street, not just across, increasing their ability to keep eyes on the street. (Courtesy Michael Pyatok)

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes a similar case in his recent book, Palaces for the People, which passionately defends the importance of what he calls “social infrastructure”—the network of public and private spaces that allow members of a community to interact. “To this day, most policies that aim to reduce crime focus on punishing people rather than improving places,” Klinenberg writes. “We invest little in housing and neighborhood amenities like libraries, senior centers, and community gardens, which draw people into the public realm and put more eyes on the street. And we spend even less to address criminal ‘hot spots.’” Klinenberg argues that when cities use their resources to restore vacant properties in these hot spots, it not only reduces crime but also spurs community cohesion.

The research, however, also shows that no place-based intervention is sufficient on its own. Policies focused on housing design and urban greening, critics say, haven’t always shown strong results—not as strong as the kind of strategies that help people at risk and protect against those who pose a threat to public safety. So neither should be considered in a vacuum. After all, things like window bars and camera surveillance are designed to remediate crime problems that a whole range of bad planning practices, from residential segregation to systematic disinvestment from the urban core, contributed to in the first place. Those problems are inseparable from concentrated disadvantage and residential instability.

Meanwhile, the case of San Antonio shows that communities have tools at their disposal to reduce the most damaging types of crime in the most vulnerable areas. “We were very focused on the things that we think are amenable to change,” said Tillyer. People who care, she said, can adapt security features even when they can’t work directly with the people at risk: “They can do stuff about places.”

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