Addressing Abandoned Property Is Better Public Safety Policy, Study FindsSeptember 10, 2018

In the New Yorker, Eric Klinenberg examines a neglected aspect of the infamous "broken windows" theory and how fixing up vacant property makes communities safer than arrests for petty crimes.

Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson and Rutgers criminologist George Kelling introduced the "broken windows" theory in 1982, writing that places with signs of disorder (i.e., broken windows or graffiti) become breeding grounds for crime. Their much-cited and oft-criticized article led cities to adopt "zero tolerance" policing of petty crimes, which meant an massive escalation in stopping, frisking, arresting, and excessively punishing people, especially black men.

But rather than reprise the theory's many problems, Mr. Klinenberg asks what would have happened if, instead of targeting petty crimes, the focus had remained on the first step towards "disorder" as defined by Wilson and Kelling:

A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. 

University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald and Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas have been investigating whether cleaning up vacant properties and empty lots in Philadelphia increases public safety. 

They hypothesized that remediation would reduce violent crime nearby because abandoned houses are good places for people to hide from police, to store firearms, and to sell drugs because product can be stashed in weeds and tall grass. "It's not simply that they are signs of disorder," Mr. Branas told the New Yorker. "It's that the places themselves create opportunities for gun violence; they take what might just be a poor neighborhood and make it poor and dangerous."

Expanding on earlier studies that found that crime rates in cities like Austin and New York were significantly higher on blocks with abandoned buildings, the researchers examined violent crime around 2356 abandoned buildings in Philadelphia, 676 of which had their windows and doors replaced, and the rest of which had not been remediated. They also compared violent crime around 49,690 vacant lots in the city, of which 4436 had been remediated by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which had cleared trash, graded the land, planted grass and trees, and installed low fences to create "pocket parks." 

They found a 39 percent reduction in gun violence in and around remediated buildings and a 5 percent reduction in and around remediated lots. The declines in violence were "extraordinary" in scale and sustainability, lasting one to nearly four years.

And unlike approaches focused on individuals, remediating properties is simple, cheap, and easily scalable. "Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.00 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested," the researchers wrote.

Most crime policy today focuses on punishing people — with calls for more severe sentencing and more aggressive policing on the rise — rather than investing in housing and public resources like libraries, senior centers, and community gardens. Even less funding is directed to cleaning up empty lots and abandoned buildings, which Mr. Branas's team estimates comprise 15 percent of city space in America.

But these studies suggest, as Klinenberg writes, that "place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based ones." 

The Philadelphia findings generated millions of dollars in federal grants, and blight-remediation projects, complete with trained researchers and paid community residents, have been launched in New Orleans; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; and Youngstown, Ohio.