Housing Repair and Crime—Investment at a Small Scale for a Potential Big Impact | Health Disparities | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network
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Invited Commentary
Public Health
July 21, 2021

Housing Repair and Crime—Investment at a Small Scale for a Potential Big Impact

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio
  • 2Runstad Department of Real Estate, University of Washington, Seattle
JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(7):e2117624. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17624

Looking beyond criminal justice system interventions as the sole means for creating safer communities is critical, especially in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that have experienced little improvement over time despite considerable criminal justice system expenditures. Criminological theory and research have identified a range of social and physical factors that create criminogenic conditions that are not readily amenable to law enforcement intervention,1 thus requiring alternative approaches to address crime and violence. It is from this perspective that the study by South et al2 examined the association between structural housing repairs for low-income homeowners and crime in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

South et al2 investigated outcomes associated with the City of Philadelphia’s Basic Systems Repair Program (BSRP), which provides grants of less than $20 000 to low-income homeowners that enable them to make structural repairs to their homes that are located on city block faces. The study used the program’s waiting list to implement a differences-in-differences design to compare block faces with homes that participated in the program with block faces with homes that were still on the waiting list to receive BSRP funding. The study’s findings indicated that the BSRP was associated with significant crime reduction, with the presence of a BSRP-funded property on a block face associated with a 21.9% decrease in total crime, a 19.0% decrease in assault, a 22.6% decrease in robbery, and a 21.9% decrease in homicide. The authors also reported a dose-dependent reduction in total crime, with the magnitude of this decrease increasing with the number of participating homes on a block face. This study highlighted the importance of relatively low-cost, nonpolicing interventions for reducing crime in occupied spaces, whereas previous research primarily focused on blight remediation of vacant spaces.

The study aptly pointed out the structural root causes of violent crime, including residential racial segregation and concentrated poverty, which contribute to unsafe communities. Yet an established body of empirical research highlighted the substantial variation in crime within communities; that is, even in neighborhoods that were labeled as unsafe, considerable street-to-street variability was found.3 Longitudinal studies of crime on street segments or block faces, the unit of analysis used in the study by South et al,2 have found that (1) a relatively large proportion of crime in most cities occurred in a small proportion of block faces, (2) crime on block faces showed considerable stability over time, and (3) changes in crime on relatively few block faces can be an outsized factor in citywide crime patterns.4 These findings suggest that programs, such as the BSRP, might maximize crime-reduction benefits by being even more targeted: that is, by prioritizing low-income homeowners in structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods who reside on streets with historically high crime. South et al2 reported that, “The association of the BSRP intervention with violent crime subtypes, such as robbery and homicide, appeared to be driven by the changes in areas in the highest crime quantile,” suggesting that financial investments should be guided by information at a smaller spatial scale to net the greatest social benefit.

Moreover, research has shown that crime can alter private investment; an increase in total crime on a block face was associated with a considerable decrease in building permit activity the following year.5 Private investment decisions are associated with the predictability of future returns, and crime is viewed as an indicator of neighborhood instability that increases risk.6 Therefore, targeted place-based investments in residential and commercial buildings or open spaces in high-crime areas can spur initial reduction in crime, which may then attract private investment that can help sustain decreases in criminal activity and create economic change. If this premise is true, then strategic and relatively modest public investments may produce greater long-term benefits by attracting private investment to vacant spaces (eg, new construction on vacant land) and occupied spaces (eg, rehabilitation of existing structures).

The findings from the study by South et al2 serve as a reminder that public policy evaluations should be comprehensive in nature, with cost-benefit analyses that include all relevant, favorable and unfavorable outcomes.7 Economic investment and community development programs, such as the BSRP, should be assessed in light of not only their implications for the well-being of the program participants but also their broader economic development, residential stability, crime, and health outcomes. Failure to perform such an assessment may lead to incorrect estimation of the benefits of public policy interventions and to broader social implications (whether by design or not).

South et al2 noted that they did not measure crime spillover, or what is often referred to as spatial crime displacement (ie, when criminal activity relocates to a nearby location in response to an intervention). Although we encourage such crime spillover investigations, we also note that systematic reviews have reported that spatial crime displacement does not always occur, but when it does occur, the crime displaced is a fraction of what was originally prevented.8 Alternatively, evidence suggests that some place-based interventions actually produce a broader spatial diffusion of benefits, whereby nearby locations that were not the direct focus of the intervention also enjoy a reduction in crime.8 In short, evaluations of the net benefits of place-based programs, including the BSRP, should consider the full range of potential outcomes and targets.

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Article Information

Published: July 21, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17624

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Tillyer MS et al. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Marie Skubak Tillyer, PhD, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Texas at San Antonio, 501 W Cesar E Chavez Blvd, San Antonio, TX 78207 (Marie.Tillyer@utsa.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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Weisburd  D, Groff  ER, Yang  SM.  The Criminology of Place: Street Segments and Our Understanding of the Crime Problem. Oxford University Press; 2012.
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Cullen  JB, Levitt  SD.  Crime, urban flight, and the consequences for cities.  Rev Econ Stat. 1999;81(2):159-169.
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Guerette  RT, Bowers  KJ.  Assessing the extent of crime displacement and diffusion of benefits: a review of situational crime prevention evaluations.   Criminology. 2009;47:1331-1368. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2009.00177.xGoogle ScholarCrossref
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