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Crime, Poverty, and Housing
July 4, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Does crime go down when housing is cheap?

In Seattle, today, it is generally safe to walk most of the streets, most of the time. But many places that used to be safe, including public parks, have seen shootings in the past few months. For years areas around homeless camps have seen lots of petty and occasionally violent crime. Within the camps lies the greatest danger: theft, rape, violence are all common, and only when there is an out-of-control fire or a shooting does any of this make the local news. There is what can reasonably be called a drug epidemic, with addiction by no means limited to the homeless. Drug overdose deaths, usually involving fentanyl, are a daily occurrence. I suspect, but have not seen statistics that show, that a majority of deaths by firearms have some relation the drug trade.

The recent failure of the Seattle City Council to pass a city law enabling enforcement of a state law, that make using hard drugs (cocaine,meth,opiates) in public places a misdemeanor, has the city abuzz. Even some people who identify as Progressive [including me] are angry because we know that this lack of enforcement will lead to more drug users, more fighting over territory, and more crime against civilians as junkies gather funds for their next fix.

The lefty-progressives offer solutions, in addition to being nice to junkies and those who refuse to contribute to society. One of these solutions involves housing. They have had well over a decade to implement their solutions (through control of the City Council), but did not. They don't want more policing or the trauma of court hearing or jail for those they see as capitalism's victims: the people who prefer drugs and theft, or at least welfare, to work. They want carrots, not sticks.

Housing prices in Seattle are high, both by traditional and by national standards. A working person (high school diploma or less) will find most rents in the $1,500 to $2,000 a month range. Wages, full-time, at the bottom, run about $3,200 per month before taxes. Because of the high value of land, high wages for skilled construction workers, and high building standards, new apartment buildings are expensive to build and tend to open with rents well above $2,000 per month.

One Progressive line of argument is that we must house homeless and borderline people first. Then trauma will go down, and crime will go down. Sounds nice. But history indicates it is not very true. The famous phrase "correlation does not imply causation" leaves out an important point about statistics, which is to say the complexities of our reality. When there are multiple variables at play, there can be various degrees of correlation and causation. Crime has many causes, and it correlates in varying degrees to varying factors. Varieties of crime have varieties of causes.

In the 1970s and 1980s I mainly lived in cities on the East Coast: Providence, Washington D.C., and New York City. In retrospect housing costs were remarkably low: practically free in Providence, medium in D.C., higher in NYC but really quite reasonable compared to wages. The problem, in all three cities, was that the economy was mostly bad (this was the period of stagflation), so jobs were scarce. The correlation between a poor economy, high unemployment, and low rents was obvious. The exodus to the suburbs, and from north to south, was combined with the closing of factories. At that time factories were not yet moving to China, but to other low-cost labor markets.

So according to Progressive (Seattle) doctrine, since getting housed was not too difficult, even if you were a starving artist, drunk or a junkie, crime should have been low. It was not. While I was in NYC two of my friends were mugged, one hurt pretty badly in the process. Another friend was killed when he went with too much money to the wrong people and place to buy crystal meth. Once there was a dead junkie on my doorstep. A few years later, during the crack cocaine epidemic, a woman was killed for a few dollars not too far from my apartment in Brooklyn.

There are three big causes of crime today: drugs, business, and culture. In the culture category I include cruelty, for some criminals enjoy the pain they inflict on others, even if they profit by it. Criminal business, conducted purely for money, including fraud, can only be stamped out by police work. Culture cannot be changed overnight, though we should certainly do what we can to reinforce the idea that being a law-abiding citizen is a good thing.

That leaves drugs. Most people know there was crime before Prohibition passed in the U.S. in 1920. Most people know the crime of the Roaring Twenties was driven by the illegal alcohol trade, and that when Prohibition ended (in 1933) the criminal gangs had to muddle through until the illegal drug trade brightened up in the 1960s.

Drug epidemics and the crimes that accompany them come in waves. Because the crime associated with cannabis use has declined since legalization, many progressive activists now argue that all recreational drug use should be legalized. It is a strange stance for a group that wants the FDA to force companies to spend over $1 billion per new drug to test for safety and efficacy of the drugs for actual diseases. Fentanyl and crystal meth cure no diseases. They make people crazy, and then dead, and even before that they make people behave in anti-social ways.

Clearly Seattle needs more and cheaper housing. I favor discouraging companies from bringing more workers here, thus decreasing demand, and loosening the building codes, thus allow for new buildings to be constructed more cheaply. Once supply exceeds demand, rents should start to fall.

When a junkie (or alcoholic, or naturally lazy person) stops working, any rent becomes too much rent. We could treat junkies as disabled, and give them free rent and other services. The problem with that is it is too attractive to too many people. Who wants to work for 40 hours a week to have a small apartment, when you can get the same apartment just by junking up? Sure, some people will stick with work and human dignity and being taxed to support the shirkers. Some will even continue to vote progressive, because they cannot think outside their bubble.

In dealing with a pandemic, job one is stopping transmission. We can stop transmission by arresting dealers and harassing users. The law, passed with overwhelming Democratic Party support for the State of Washington, contemplated little jail time for public users. Instead, jail time was a stick, a threat, to get users into rehab programs.

Sometimes rehab works, sometimes it does not. That is why I favor drug testing and monitoring, though only for those who have proven they have a weakness for drugs.

Is this a new war on drugs? If it is, it is better than where I see the progressive's Peace the Drugs going. It is, at least, a modified war that no longer includes cannabis. Also, its goal is to sent users to rehab, not long prison sentences. I am fine with that. To have a perfect peace we would need a culture that rejects drug use; not likely. As to dealers, they tend to be more rational than users. Retrain them for some more useful business, keep prison as a threat, and they will mostly come around.

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