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At Risk

Researchers pinpoint neighborhood decline in an effort to stop it.

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What Blue Crush has done to crime is what criminologist Richard Janikowski hopes new data will do for the city's growing number of transitional neighborhoods.

The Blue Crush initiative, which began in 2005, uses crime data to target hot spots. Janikowski, along with wife Phyllis Betts, hopes data on foreclosures, Section 8 vouchers, and vacant homes can help the city identify vulnerable neighborhoods.

A recent article in The Atlantic cited both Janikowski and Betts, director of the U of M's Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action, in an exploration of the link between crime and Section 8 vouchers and the federal HOPE VI program, which provides redevelopment money for public housing.

The couple also teamed up to give a presentation on their data at a recent City Council meeting.

"This is not about Section 8. This is not about HOPE VI. It is about trying to understand how neighborhood change is occurring in Memphis," Janikowski said in an interview at his office last week. The issue for Betts and Janikowski is how a city can ensure healthy neighborhoods.

More than 20 percent of the Memphis population lives below the poverty line, according to 2000 census data, but the dismantling of public housing projects has dispersed poor residents. That is part of what Section 8 vouchers are supposed to do.

"One thing we're convinced the data shows us is, yes, poverty has deconcentrated in the city," Janikowski said. "The number of census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more has decreased. However, the number of census tracts with poverty rates of 20 to 40 percent has increased."

Betts, who is working on the city's Neighborhood by Neighbor project to identify problem properties, splits areas into four categories, or zones.

Zone 1 are distressed areas with poverty rates of 20 to 40 percent. Zone 3 are stable neighborhoods and Zone 4 are uptrending transitional neighborhoods such as downtown.

Zone 2 are the vulnerable swing neighborhoods — identified by 20 to 39 percent poverty rates, substantial growth in the number of earned income tax credit filers, or more than 30 percent sub-prime loan originations.

With federal funding from the HOPE VI program, public housing projects such as Hurt Village and Dixie Homes were torn down to rebuild mixed-income developments Uptown and Legends Park. Some of the former residents were then given Section 8 vouchers, which enables them to live in subsidized housing.

"The research nationally shows that there is a tendency [to cluster] because the voucher is only worth X amount of money. Folks are moving into transitional neighborhoods because that is where the cheaper housing is," Janikowski said.

"If you allow clustering without taking affirmative steps to distribute housing, then what you're doing is simply re-creating public housing in other neighborhoods with all the potential associated problems that existed with public housing."

Robert Lipscomb argued against the interpretation and defended what he said was a criminalization of the people in the HOPE VI program.

"It's one of the few programs we have that's making any sense," Lipscomb said. "There is no correlation between HOPE VI and violent crime. The folks who were there were the sick, and the weak, and the marginalized."

Because Betts and Janikowski pinpoint aging apartment complexes as potential problems, they advocate site-specific services and working closely with landlords. But they say the solutions need to tackle all the problems facing vulnerable neighborhoods. Widespread poverty isn't the only problem that the couple have identified with their data.

"Just like the rest of the nation, we have a foreclosure crisis," Janikowski said.

In zip codes 38127 and 38128 in North Memphis, for instance, 49 to 53 percent of homeowners are not current on their loans.

In zip codes 38112, 39 to 43 percent of the loans are not current. And in Midtown's 38104, 21 to 38 percent of homeowners are behind on their payments.

"Vacant and abandoned properties can make a neighborhood turn very quickly, particularly if they cluster," Janikowski said, "so this is something for us to worry about."

Conventional research says that once a neighborhood is 20 percent blighted, the rest of the neighborhood follows suit. Newer research suggests that figure may be lower.

"Healthy neighborhoods are the backbone of the tax base for the city, so it's not just a question of the folks living in those neighborhoods," Janikowski said. "It's also what are we looking at for the future of Memphis. If the tax base decreases tremendously, we've got problems."

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