Trying to Cut Crime in Public Housing by Making it More Livable

Opinion

FIXES
by Tina Rosenberg
New York City is the safest big city in the nation. Can it get even safer?
The city is betting it can, with a novel strategy that goes far beyond traditional crime-fighting.

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Karla Alonso, an engagement coordinator for the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, second left, and her team of residents handing out fliers for a fitness class at the St. Nicholas Houses complex in Harlem. CreditByron Smith for The New York Times

The strategy, embodied in the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, is being employed in 15 of the most dangerous public housing complexes in the city. The idea is to lower crime by making these neighborhoods better — places where residents live in well-maintained buildings, have necessary services, are engaged in civic life and can collaborate to solve problems.

Working elevators, summer jobs for teenagers, community centers open till midnight, residents who know what to do when the trash piles up — no one would doubt that these are good things. But it seems a stretch to call them crime prevention measures. Will people really commit fewer robberies and shootings if the trash gets picked up?

The city is working with researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to test exactly this. So far, crime has dropped more in the 15 complexes involved in the plan than in other public housing (with one exception: Shootings are way down in both, but more so in sites not in the program).

Why? It might be this: Crime is in part a function of trust. “Trust is the heartbeat of civic life,” said Elizabeth Glazer, head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “It’s not just about policing. It’s not just that you have to have trust to report crime. You have to have some relationship to government. These neighborhoods feel completely estranged.”

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