Study: Crime Drops When Neighborhoods Get a Makeover

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Can changing a neighborhood's landscape reduce crime? Photo by Adam Rosenberg via Flickr

A Pittsburgh-based nonprofit development organization reduced crime by up to 49 percent through a hybrid strategy of combining hot-spot policing and real estate intervention.

However, it came with a high cost, according to a University of Michigan Study.

The study, published by the Transportation Research Institute of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, looked at the neighborhood of East Liberty in Pittsburgh— a thriving community throughout the 19th and mid-20th centuries, and currently home to the third largest central business district (CBD) in Pennsylvania.

The study examined whether improving the quality of housing stock in partnership with local community organizations would affect crime “hotspots” already targeted by police for sustained law enforcement activity.

It focused on the impact of the East Liberty Development, Inc.(ELDI) , a nonprofit development organization established by the city in 1979 to collaborate with neighborhood stakeholders in planning, advocacy, facilitation, and investment to revitalize the community

Significant drops in the rate of crime incidents were documented between 2008, when sustained redevelopment began, and 2012.

“The reduction in crime incidents was appreciably higher when compared relative to neighborhoods in close proximity to East Liberty or the average reduction in crime citywide,” concluded the study, which was conducted by Numeritics, a Pittsburgh-based consulting practice.

According to ELDI, “disastrous urban planning” in the 1960s generated an increased rates of unemployment and crime. In 1999, the organization formulated a 10-year plan for development entitled, “A Vision for East Liberty.”

Through this plan, ELDI acquired problematic properties, hired property managers and hired off-duty police officers to refurbish, manage and monitor these properties.

Study author Tayo Fabusuyi, who was the lead strategist at Numeritics and is also an adjunct faculty member at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University, conducted the four-year study.

According to data obtained from the Pittsburgh police, crime incidents had declined by 26 percent in East Liberty compared to 20 percent in the surrounding neighborhoods and 16 percent citywide between 2008 and 2012.

Crime within the area where the implementation was most focused decreased by 49 percent.

Beyond the 49 percent reduction in residential crime in East Liberty between 2008 and 2012, Numeritics also documented a sustained decrease in crime incidents in the neighborhood from 2008 to 2015, which represents the most recent data analyzed.

But as crime rates decreased, demand for properties in the neighborhood increased, translating into housing prices appreciating by more than 120 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Identification of problematic properties—ones which were typically vacant, abandoned or owned by slumlords—was based on input from residents and ELDI staff members who live in the neighborhood. ELDI then acquired more than 200 of these units over the four year period, representing approximately three percent of the rental apartment units in the neighborhood.

Many high-rise housing projects were replaced with low-rise, townhouse-style mixed-income housing. Other initiatives focused on bringing businesses, shops, and restaurants back to the area.

Property managers were then hired to enforce tenant lease obligations prohibiting drug dealing, illegal activity, and disorderly behavior that previous property management had condoned.

Additionally, ELDI hired off-duty police officers to monitor properties, relocated squatters in abandoned homes, and boarded up and maintained vacant houses they did not own in order to generate a sense of order.

All of these initiatives led to increased guardianship in both ELDI-owned and non-ELDI-owned properties, which has been documented in existing literature as being strongly correlated with reduced criminal activity, according to Fabusuyi.

However, the price of redevelopment was high. In 2008, the cost of sheathing or roofing a property—about $20,000—exceeded the average market value of an apartment unit in East Liberty.

Over a three-year period (2008-2011), ELDI also spent approximately $45,000 hiring off-duty police officers at a rate of $110/man-hour.

Furthermore, ELDI’s rigorous screening procedure for potential tenants and its zero tolerance for disorderly conduct translated into a higher vacancy rates.

ELDI has been able to strengthen its anchor within East Liberty through more than two decades of community development.

However, the challenge for ELDI is raising the consciousness of East Liberty to a point where the neighborhood can police itself, without the need for frequent outside intervention, the study said.

The study argued that the results could be instructive for work in similar at-risk neighborhoods elsewhere.

“We conclude that a community-oriented approach to local redevelopment that reduces crime in a sustainable way should emphasize, in addition to community or third-party policing, strategies to improve and leverage the neighborhood’s social cohesion and informal social control,” the study said.

The full report can be read here.

This summary was produced by TCR news intern Brian Edsall. He welcomes comments from readers.

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