Public housing has in many ways been left out of New York's public safety renaissance
Last week’s funeral for Officer Randolph Holder has turned the spotlight on the city's judicial system — specifically, on why his murderer had been allowed to avoid prison time despite a series of violent offenses.
But Holder’s murder should also call attention to another issue, one that should be of special concern to a mayor who has pledged to improve the lives of the city’s poor: the disproportionately high rate of violent crime in New York’s public housing developments, where many of the city’s lowest-income residents live.
[NYC Housing Authority] is on pace for 20% fewer murders this year than in 2006, but only 3% fewer rapes, and 21% more felony assaults. Meanwhile the rest of the city is on pace for a 43% decline in murder, a 6% decline in rape and only a 16% rise in felony assault.
The slain police officer patrolled the East River Houses, in which his accused murderer, Tyrone Howard, was an unauthorized resident. Violent crime is neither unusual for the projects of East Harlem nor for their counterparts across the city.
In a report for the Manhattan Institute being released Monday, I analyze the disturbing trend in crime in public housing — where some 400,000 people officially live — compared to the rest of the city, and find that people in NYCHA properties are murdered, raped and assaulted at twice or more the rate of the rest of the city.
Based on major crime index data obtained in part from Daily News exclusive reporting going back to 2006, NYCHA’s share of citywide crime — particularly violent crime — has risen, even as its share of the city population has fallen.
Since entering office, Mayor de Blasio has emphasized the “tale of two cities” — the disparity in opportunity and quality of life between the most and least well-off in the five boroughs. The NYCHA public safety gap is a longstanding issue predating de Blasio, and, of all reasonably objectionable injustices in life, surely an excess of murder is the most severe.
NYCHA has been left out of the continuing decline of major crimes since 2006. Citywide excluding NYCHA, the number of major crimes has declined from 123,611 in 2006 to a projected all-time low of roughly 98,351 in 2015. Since 2012, however, the number of major crimes in NYCHA properties has been just as high as it was in 2006.
NYCHA is on pace for 20% fewer murders this year than in 2006, but only 3% fewer rapes, and 21% more felony assaults. Meanwhile the rest of the city is on pace for a 43% decline in murder, a 6% decline in rape and only a 16% rise in felony assault.
Bottom line: The NYC-NYCHA violent crime gap has grown over the last decade. That’s not progress.
Gov. Cuomo, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and the mayor are all well aware of the problem. This month, Cuomo committed $42 million in state funding to pay for “security cameras, interior and exterior lighting and gunfire detection technology, among other enhancements” in NYCHA. The developments were selected by the New York State Homes and Community Renewal division, using feedback from tenants seeking defense against the criminals who terrorize the peaceful majority of public housing residents.
This comes on top of pilot initiatives launched by the city in the summer of 2014 across 15 projects that accounted for 20% of NYCHA’s violent crime. The initiative added 700 cops to the NYPD’s Housing Authority group, provided $50 million for “physical improvements to enhance security,” invested $1.5 million for exterior lighting at the 15 developments and spent $15.6 million to “expand key programs to help build stronger individuals, families and communities.”
But there’s been no significant follow-up on how this limited pilot initiative is working, which means it will be hard to scale up. Although randomized controlled trials of these interventions would be ideal — to see which does the best job driving down violence — at least some kind of basic A/B testing of different options would help the city zero in on which investments make sense to build upon.
That said, I live next to one of the projects where new mobile street lighting was rolled out. Anecdotally, it seems to work. At the very least, it forces crime into darker corners, as nobody wants to sell drugs under a bright NYPD streetlight. The city should consider the option of wiring streetlight improvements permanently, rather than running diesel generators all night, as is currently the case.
In the meantime, we must mind the gap between the murder and violent crime rates on NYCHA premises and those of the rest of the city. We should keep pushing for improvement — ideally with rigorous monitoring and empirical testing to identify the most effective interventions.
Public order is the foundational prerequisite for successful education, work and pleasure in any city. It’s especially hard for households in the projects to succeed when their local neighborhoods endure murder, rape and assault at twice the citywide rate.
NYCHA residents deserve the same increased peace of mind and safety of person that the rest of the city has enjoyed since Bratton and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani first began getting crime under control.