The link between foreclosures and crime

What is the relationship between foreclosures and crime? It’s not easily summarized, so let’s jump right in.

To begin, many studies investigating the link between foreclosures and crime were conducted following the 2008-2009 foreclosure crisis. Several of these studies found that areas with higher foreclosure rates had a startling increase in violent crime compared to similar areas with lower foreclosure rates. Meanwhile, other studies that seemed very similar reached the opposite conclusion: areas with high foreclosure rates did not have higher crime compared to areas with lower foreclosure rates.

So what happened? How can very similar studies arrive arrive at opposite conclusions? What is the relationship between foreclosures and crime?

Two factors seem to be at play. First, foreclosures alone do not appear to lead to higher crime. However, if the foreclosed building becomes vacant or abandoned, that leads to higher crime. One study (paywalled) in Pittsburgh found that violent crime around around a building increased a whopping 19% after it became abandoned; the longer the building remained vacant, the worse the crime became. Meanwhile, foreclosures that were never abandoned did not affect crime at all. This is consistent with a large body of evidence in the criminal justice field that abandoned buildings are notorious magnets for crime (eg, here and here (paywalled)).

This helps to explain why some studies found a link between foreclosures and crime, while others didn’t. Studies that included areas where foreclosures did not become abandoned would not have found that foreclosures increase crime. Studies that included areas where foreclosures did become abandoned would find that foreclosures do increase crime. In Milwaukee, there can be no question that hundreds of foreclosures did indeed become abandoned and therefore became magnets for crime.

Second, studies that focused on very small areas tended to find that foreclosures increased crime, but studies that focused on larger areas did not. This makes sense; if a criminal act is made possible because of access to an abandoned building, then crime should only increase near those abandoned buildings. That’s why a 2012 study (paywalled) in Indianapolis that was able to pinpoint crime data to a 1000 foot by 1000 foot grid (smaller than a Census tract) found that foreclosures led to an increase all categories of crime, whereas another 2012 study (paywalled)–this one in Chicago–which used much larger divisions (each division was the size of several Census tracts) found no effect of foreclosures on crime.

As foreclosure rates skyrocketed in 2008-2009, overall crime rates did not increase in 2008, 2009, or 2010. That would seem to argue persuasively that foreclosures do not cause crime. But that might be wrong. First, both violent and property crime rates have fallen by about half since the early 1990s. Could crime have been even lower in 2009 and 2010 without the spike of foreclosures? Second, violent and property crime both increased in 2011 and 2012. This is consistent with the idea that foreclosures cause crime not immediately when the foreclosure is filed, but many months later, after the building becomes abandoned and eventually discovered by criminals. Because a foreclosure does not lead to a building being abandoned immediately, and an abandoned building might not be discovered by criminals for several months or even years, we would expect a delay between a spike in foreclosures and a spike in crime. That is exactly what happened: there was a spike in foreclosures in 2008-2009 and a spike in crime in 2011-2012.

Other data support the idea that foreclosures–by causing buildings to be abandoned–increase crime. For example, the Chicago-based group Lawyers Committee for Better Housing found:

More than 2,600 crimes were reported in Chicago’s abandoned buildings and vacant lots last year, a 48 percent increase from 2005 that equated to an average of seven reported crimes on any given day in 2012. Meanwhile, overall crime reports within the city fell 27 percent during the same period[.]

You did not misread that: overall crime in Chicago between 2005 and 2012 fell by a quarter even as crimes committed in abandoned buildings and vacant lots increased by half. That is a truly stunning finding. Clearly, criminals really like abandoned buildings.

Additionally, in Philadelphia in 2011, the City began enforcing an ordinance that imposed hefty fines on owners of abandoned buildings that lacked secure and working windows and doors. Normally, abandoned buildings are boarded up with plywood, but this is easily penetrated by intruders, degrades quickly from the weather, and looks unsightly. The photo at the top of this page shows a before and after photo; you can clearly see how repulsive boarded up buildings are for neighborhoods.

The introduction of this ordinance created a natural experiment; suddenly, a lot of vacant buildings in Philadelphia were being remediated, replacing plywood with secure windows and doors. Researchers studying these remediations found that when an abandoned building had new windows and doors installed, the immediately surrounding area had significantly less overall crime, with particularly pronounced effect of decreased assaults, gun assaults, robberies, and nuisance crimes. Meanwhile, the buildings that remained unremediated despite the new ordinance did not see a change in crime, arguing that the remediations really were responsible for the dramatic drop in crime.

Areas around the abandoned buildings did have increased narcotics sales and possessions (presumably, drug dealers and users lost access to the shelter of an abandoned building and got caught for crimes they were previously getting away with) and property crimes. Nevertheless, total crime–particularly certain categories of violent crime–fell dramatically around remediated buildings. So far, the expected result: less access to abandoned buildings led to less crime in and around the abandoned buildings.

So if criminals lost access to abandoned buildings, did they simply take their criminal activity elsewhere? Apparently not–the researchers found that overall crime city-wide did not increase even as it fell around remediated buildings. This makes sense. If abandoned buildings make it easier to get away with crimes, it is difficult to see why limiting access to abandoned buildings would not reduce crime. Less access to abandoned buildings meant less crime overall. Crime did not relocate.

In sum, abandoned buildings are absolutely terrible for neighborhoods, attracting crime like a magnet. This accelerates neighborhood disinvestment; the neighborhood first became blighted by unsightly abandoned buildings, and like a one-two punch, those abandoned buildings begin harboring criminal activity. The increase in crime surrounding abandoned buildings causes further disinvestment. In Milwaukee, there can be no doubt that this was the fate for many foreclosures. This unquestionably led to greater crime, disinvestment, and blight in areas of the city that could least afford it. Preventing foreclosures could have prevented so many buildings from becoming abandoned, which in turn could have kept neighborhood safer.

Fortunately, per the results of the window/door remediation in Philadelphia, limiting access to abandoned buildings does seem to reduce crime overall. Given their effect on crime, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to deal with abandoned buildings, and an ordinance similar to the one in Philadelphia might be worth a try here. However–as they say–an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Many of Milwaukee’s foreclosures could have been prevented at a far lower cost than it ultimately cost to deal with the buildings once abandoned. We need to prevent buildings from getting foreclosed on and abandoned in the first place.


Image: Before/after comparison photos of an abandoned building affected by a window and door remediation ordinance in Philadelphia.