Crime, Fear and the Neighborhood (II)

The “Old Northwest Side” neighborhood meeting that the city hosted on September 22 was really two meetings, hinged on the question of neighborhood concerns about crime.  Each in its own way raised questions about how we perceive vulnerability to crime in our own homes.

For the first hour,  in response to the recent epidemic of break-ins, Police Chief Barnett Jones held forth on crime statistics and advice on how to be safe in one’s home.

Chief Jones provided these figures for crime in Ann Arbor:

  • Jan-June 2008: 1516 major crimes; 1055 breaking and entering
  • Jan-June 2009: 1422 major crimes; 1012 breaking and entering

His conclusions: “Crime has gone down in our community; we have a very safe community.”  As can be seen, these would indicate that the famous “uptick” in crime did not occur in the first half of the year.  It is somewhat difficult to reconcile with FBI crime statistics for 2007-2008, showing an increase in property crime from 2,777 in 2007 to 3121 in 2008.  Part of the answer is that different time frames are involved, and the data are not sufficiently granular to indicate what part of “property crime” is in “major crime” or is “breaking and entering”, etc.  Also, the UM apparently submits its own crime statistics to the FBI and those are presumably included in the FBI data (which were supplied to by the county sheriff).

Separately, the chief examined the budgetary allotment for “public safety”, which includes police, fire, and the courts:

  • 1996: 39% of the city budget to police, fire and courts
  • 2008: 54% of the city budget to police, fire and courts.

Note that no fine details were included.  For example, are any amounts related to early retirements charged off against those percentages?  And are expenses relating to the relocation of the 15th District court included?  Certainly the numbers do not give me reassurance that “feet on the street” were getting a high monetary support.  But Jones stressed to the audience that “we’re not overworked”.

But regardless of statistics and dollars, one thing we know is that our Sunset/Brooks area (which includes roughly the area bounded by Spring, Newport, Sunset, and Miller) is not as safe as it used to be.  There was 1 report of a break-in in May, 2 in June, 1 in July – and then 11 in August.  So far in September, 4 have been reported.  Jones said that they seem to have stopped, presumably because of all the attention, and that he personally believes that it is someone living in the neighborhood.  (This would seem to be supported by the fact that the individual carries a backpack, takes only easily portable objects like laptops, and walks up to successive doors.)

Then, for the second hour, a group of neighbors from a slightly different area expressed fears and asked questions relating to the density of supportive and affordable housing in their area, and its possible effect on safety.  The immediate impetus was apparently the Near North project, that was approved by Council on Monday.  Originally this group of neighbors had been hoping for the meeting before that approval.  But their concern is that they felt their neighborhood had too high a density of affordable, supportive, and low-income housing, more than most areas of the city are being asked to bear, and that it made them less safe in their neighborhood.

Indeed, as was conceded by representatives of several supportive housing nonprofits (Michael Appel of Avalon Housing served as the chief spokesperson), the area does have a very high density of various kinds of low-income housing (see map).  As explained, the reason that it is there instead of say, Burns Park, is that property values are simply more affordable.  Also, advocates for the homeless and near-homeless have always argued that these groups need to be near downtown so that they can have ready access to services.

It was clarified that one source of concern, Miller Manor, is a federally-funded facility managed by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission (i.e., it is public housing).  There have been reports of trouble there in the past, but the new manager, Marge Novak explained that it is well staffed, is not “supportive” housing, and that what few problems exist are usually among residents, not with the rest of the community.

Avalon has until this Near North project focused exclusively on supportive housing, with the possible exception of the units that the Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corporation (WAHC) formerly owned.  Avalon took over management of those properties in January 2009.  Supportive housing, as Appel explained, is aimed at very low income people (about $8-15 thousand annual income).  Much of it is also for people who have various disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse, developmental and physical disabilities.  Many of them are subsisting on SSI (Supplemental Security Income).  They do pay rent to Avalon and they have caseworkers from human service agencies who work with them.  Avalon has always made a point of supervising their tenants closely and evicts troublemakers (Appel estimated that about 5% a year are evicted for behavioral problems).  Other residences in the area are leased by Avalon to Dawn Farm, which runs a number of dry rehabilitation facilities.  The point was made strongly that tenants of these facilities are unlikely to cause trouble, because they are so closely counseled and supervised.

All of this did not entirely satisfy the complaining neighbors, who stated that they loved the diversity of the neighborhood but were concerned that with such a high density of people with acknowledged “issues” might endanger their security in their home turf. But at least they left with more information.

So are there really any safety and security problems for our neighborhood?  The recent rash of break-ins does, actually, look anomalous and maybe the work of only one person, who we hope will be caught now that everyone is so alert.  Despite a recent incident at an Avalon house (a tenant who showed bad judgment about who he took home), they have not and don’t look likely to be a source of crime against our other residents.  The police response has been strong and confident.

But what we have lost is the sense of security that we once enjoyed. The chief’s Crime Prevention talk wasn’t exactly reassuring.  He noted that we should no longer regard ourselves as exempt from what is happening in Michigan.  We are a community of haves, he said, surrounded by have-nots.  Desperate times are making people take desperate measures.  Other communities like Canton and Birmingham are experiencing an increase in crime and we should also be prepared.  Beyond the obvious advice about locking doors and windows, using light timers and letting neighbors know when you will be away, he offered rather frightening suggestions like locking the back door when you are in the back yard, backing into the garage so a perp can’t sneak in past you, and taking out shrubs and vegetation where robbers might lurk.  The picture of Fortress Northwest is not at all appealing.  Chief Jones is also a big proponent of burglar alarms but says that dogs are not an effective deterrent.  So the overall message is: we are safe (good police protection); but be scared, very scared.  And definitely call 911 any time you see anything that “makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck”.

UPDATE: Both this meeting and a second one held on October 27, 2009 are available for viewing here.

Explore posts in the same categories: Neighborhoods

7 Comments on “Crime, Fear and the Neighborhood (II)”

  1. money&buildings Says:

    It’s interesting that no mention was made of the sizeable cut in the police force in the past several years. I read somewhere that former chief Oates said the city was no longer a place he could protect with the decrease in police; this was either one reason he resigned, or the main reason.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Yes, I had mentioned in an earlier post the concern about the retirements and decrease in the police force, and also linked to an opinion piece by a retired police officer. I also mentioned it obliquely in this post, but it was clear that a major objective of Chief Jones’ talk was to assure us that we are safe despite the reduction in force.

  3. Margaret S Says:

    It is frustrating when public figures are allowed to make contradictory statements to different audiences and never get called on them.

    RE: Michael Appel, explaining that this area has a concentration of low income housing, ‘instead of say, Burns Park, because property values are simply more affordable. Also, advocates for the homeless and near-homeless have always argued that these groups need to be near downtown so that they can have ready access to services.’

    For starters, Burns park is near downtown. The student areas of Burns park are as affordable as this area. And in reality, there are few services, such as affordable grocery shopping, in the downtown. Packard has better bus service and is closer to stores and malls.

    But the biggest contradiction in his statement is his reference to affordability of the land in this area. They are paying 1.7 to 2 million dollars for the land for Near North. There is land available in the actual downtown for much less than that per foot. The cost of their project is coming in at over $10 million dollars. For $10 million dollars, they could build in Tuomy Hills!

    • varmentrout Says:

      The comment about advocates wanting downtown access was not from Appel – it has been a long-time position that a number of people have taken. I think it was expressed this time by a sympathetic person living in the neighborhood. My notes do not specify who made the comment about the price, but I believe that it was either Sandi Smith or Sabra Briere, not Appel. I think they were referring to the Avalon houses, not NeNo.

      • Margaret S Says:

        Thanks for clarifying. Whoever said it was wrong about the need for downtown proximity and the lower cost. It isn’t true now, maybe it used to be. Also, Avalon has stated they are no longer in the business of acquiring houses. They need “the economy of scale” they get from larger projects. They aim for new construction as well. So if they continue to concentrate their projects in the northwest neighborhood, then they cannot claim cost, nor downtown proximity as the reason.

        Personally, I am not one who wishes to connect any increase in neighborhood crime with proximity to supportive housing. Research indicates that subsidized housing projects (even very small ones) seem to attract more crime then other housing because of the vulnerability of the population residing in them. What bugs me is how claims that are unsupported by data keep getting repeated.
        Is Brooks, etc. any closer to downtown than the OWS?

  4. happy town Says:


    It doesn’t show Miller Manor, the Shelter or Near North (yet to be built).

    I suspect decision makers will have a better understanding of concentration once the map has been corrected.

    • varmentrout Says:

      They wouldn’t show Near North until it is built. It was explained at the meeting that Miller Manor is not “affordable housing”, but rather public housing. The Delonis Shelter is probably also excluded as a matter of definition.

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