The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 9 | September 2008

Do Foreclosures Lead to Increased Violent Crime?
A Look at the Research Behind the Headlines

photo of a school building Scan the news headlines and you are sure to see a story about the state of the nation’s housing market. Many of these stories focus on the economic impact both to individuals and to the national economy. A number of stories also examine some of the other implications of high foreclosure numbers on our communities, including the potential effect on crime rates. A sobering fact repeated in many of these stories is that an increase in the foreclosure rate in a neighborhood can lead to an increase in the rate of violent crime. Typical is this statement reported in the Houston Chronicle this June:

When a neighborhood has 2.8 foreclosures for every 100 owner-occupied properties in a year, violent crime in the immediate area goes up 6.7 percent1.

A Potentially Serious Problem

With an estimated 1 in 33 homeowners nationally expected to be in foreclosure during the next 2 years,2 the potential link between foreclosure and violent crime should give us pause, especially when other recent work has documented increases in violent crime in some communities after a decade or more of steady declines. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the number of mortgages in foreclosure or seriously delinquent doubled between the fourth quarter of 2005 and the fourth quarter of 2007.3 The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has noted that the FBI statistics for 2005 reflected the largest single-year percent increase in violent crime in 14 years, and PERF’s own research saw that rise continue in some cities into 2006.4 Is this purely coincidence? As problem solvers familiar with the SARA process, we know we can’t simply scan the headlines and leap to conclusions about foreclosures and violent crime. We must conduct an analysis in order to understand the problem if we are to develop any responses that might effectively control it.

Back to the Source

Mark Twain once wrote, “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”’5 Statistics are malleable, and a news bite, in its attempt at brevity, may not accurately capture detailed research findings. The first step in our analysis, therefore, is to establish the source of the often-quoted statistic linking violent crime increases to foreclosures and understand the theory and work behind it.

The statistic comes from a 2005 study conducted by Dan Immergluck and Geoff Smith that sought to “measure the effect of foreclosures of single-family homes on levels of violent and property crime at the neighborhood level.”6 Their study appears to be the first attempt to quantify the impact on crime of owner-occupied foreclosures. This is different than simply looking at vacant properties, which may be abandoned for any number of reasons and it is an important distinction when seeking answers to the question of why violence is rising in previously stable communities of primarily owner-occupied residences. Understanding why the homes have come to be abandoned influences what can be done about them. In a foreclosed property, for example, the costs a jurisdiction incurs in dealing with the property may be billed to the bank that owns the property. In other cases of abandonment, the owner of the property may not be so easily identifiable.

Immergluck and Smith looked at Chicago, where in the summer of 2000 a high-profile series of murders in abandoned buildings in one South Side neighborhood brought increased attention to the problem of abandoned buildings, and led the city in September of that year to pass the nation’s first municipal ordinance aimed at reducing predatory lending.7 The belief that properties abandoned by foreclosure led to increased crime was a critical factor leading to support for the passage of the ordinance, even though systematic research of such a causal relationship was largely nonexistent.

Their research focused on a number of census tracks in central Chicago, combining census data, Dun and Bradstreet business count data, and crime data provided by the Chicago Police Department for each of those tracts from 2000 and 2001.8 The tract foreclosure rate was also calculated as the number of foreclosures divided by the number of owner-occupiable units in the tract. The mix of data is important because crime incidents are a function of both the population level, the number of businesses, and the characteristics of the population in a neighborhood.

Their models were built on theories of crime causation well-documented in recent literature. Regression analysis led them to conclude that the foreclosure rate is a statistically significant determinant of violent crime, with a “0.0287 increase in the foreclosure rated yield[ing] an expected increase in violent crime of 6.68 percent. A smaller increase in the neighborhood foreclosure rate, say 1 in 100 properties, would yield and increase in violent crime of 2.33 percent.”9 Furthermore, they determined that while higher foreclosures could cause higher violent crime rates, the reverse was not true; that is, increasing violent crime rates did not lead to higher foreclosure rates.10

Now What?

Knowing that statistical evidence exists for a causal relationship between foreclosures and violent crime, the next step may be for jurisdictions faced with a recent rise in violent crime to analyze their crime and foreclosure data to see if the relationship exists, and if so, in what neighborhoods. Foreclosure is not likely the cause of all violent crime, but if it is a causal factor in some, then responses can be designed to address that proportion of the problem. Law enforcement may not be able to prevent foreclosures, but it certainly is in the position to help mitigate the effects on violent crime that may rise from those foreclosures.

In neighborhoods hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, citizen concerns over foreclosures are not limited to property values and neighborhood aesthetics. The remaining residents are also often concerned with the effect on the safety of their neighborhood. Implementing analysis-driven responses should lead to a reduction of violent crime and fear of crime. Working with the property owners, other community members, the real estate business community, and code enforcement to ensure that the foreclosed properties do not become targets for crime and criminals should not only help protect the viable housing stock, it may also go far in helping keep violence under control and our communities safer.

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