Life on Section 8: Crime and the system - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Life on Section 8: Crime and the system

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DUBUQUE (KWWL)-- An FBI study says crime in Dubuque dropped by 17.4 percent last year. Despite several high profile crimes, including the shooting and injury of a police officer.

In 2009 two men were stabbed to death on Dubuque streets within a month of each other. Then in December a father-son duo was arrested in connection with a robbery and shoot-out with Dubuque police officer Lt. Scott Baxter in downtown Dubuque.

Reacting to the perception of a rise in crime, city officials formed a community safe task force, designed to address concerns over high crime. One of those concerns started with Section 8 housing, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Like any assistance program, there are people taking advantage of the system and there are some who are using it as a stepping stone to a better life. Dubuque receives more than $4 million a year to help area landlords take families who qualify for assistance based on income. That assistance covers about two-thirds of the rent.

But is there a link to crime as a result? That all depends on how you interpret the numbers.

"I came into Dubuque, I used the system but I didn't see it as a way of life. I used it as a stepping stone to get to where I was going to be a contributing member," Jan Schmitt said.

After spending sometime out of state, she moved back to Dubuque, lived with her parents for awhile until she applied for Section 8 housing.

"I didn't have much of a history myself and if that landlord didn't take a chance on me, I wouldn't be where I am today," Schmitt said.

Today Schmitt is an example of how the program can help. She is the secretary for the Dubuque Landlord Association. Today, her husband is a landlord. And for years the two have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of Section 8 rentals.

"I think there is more crime in those units, they don't work 8 hours a day and therefore they have a lot of time on their hands," Schmitt said.

"The numbers are showing that it is quite a bit less number of crimes attributing to Section 8 than the initial numbers showed," Dubuque Police Chief Mark Dalsing said.

Since December of 2009 the Dubuque Police Department has been tracking arrests, hand reviewing them on a weekly basis, and looking for trends that may point to crime problems in the city.

"When you look at the numbers, just on strict numbers, people that are living in rental properties are committing most crime," Dalsing said.

From December 2009 to the beginning of September 2010, Dubuque Police arrested more than 1,500 people from rental properties. That attributes to 37.4 percent of arrests.

"Crime happens everywhere, it happens across all economic lines. We have wealthy people who get arrested and we have poor people who get arrested," Dalsing said.

Across the board, from that same time period, there have been more than 4,000 arrests in Dubuque. Of those arrests, about 1,500 came from rental properties, 1,250 from private residences, 265 came from Section 8 housing, the remaining arrests coming from out of city or out of state.

"When we see total Section 8 rental property, 6.5 percent, you know people make their own judgments on this but we're thinking that crimes are happening across all lines and levels of property ownership," Dalsing said.

But, the numbers show that arrests from Section 8 are disproportionately high, compared to those who live in other rental housing and private Dubuque households.

Dubuque police found individuals from Section 8 accounted for about 6.5 percent of all arrests over a 9 month period. That breaks down to three arrests for every ten Section 8 households. Compare that to non-Section 8 rentals, where there are only two arrests for every ten. And private residences drop down to less than one arrest per ten households. So while section 8 crime is only a small piece of overall crime, it has a higher rate of arrests.

"And we're all kind of alarmed," Schmitt said.

"There are so many variables that could go into that, we've been tracking this for nearly a year and I know there's repeat offenders in there. And they may show up in different places on the graph," Dalsing said.

"It's a learned behavior and a lot of times when people are on the system it's learned. It is what they know. It is their normal," Schmitt said.

It's a norm, the Dubuque Police Department is working to change.

Each participant in Section 8 housing has to fill out a lengthy application that involved an extensive background check, including criminal history and past rental agreements. And while some take advantage of the system, it's not as easy as you might think.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Waterloo and Cedar Falls Police Departments do not keep track of arrests based on Section 8 housing but here's how each city compares to Dubuque in number of vouchers:

In Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, there are more than 2,300 Section 8 vouchers combined.

In Waterloo there are 1,056.

And in Cedar Falls officials say 326 are distributed.

Online Reporter: Lauren Squires
Follow Lauren on Twitter.

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