Many policymakers argue that vacant or blighted houses are havens for crime and that to make people and communities safer, we just need to tear them down. But is improving public safety as simple as turning vacant buildings into vacant lots?
According to my analysis of data from Saginaw, Michigan, the answer is yes. Tearing down vacant buildings can make people safer, even in a city facing depopulation and crime. I find that tearing down one blighted building reduces crime, on average, by slightly more than nine crimes per year, including two violent and five property crimes.
Saginaw, the most violent city in America from 2003 through 2008, has faced steep declines in property values and rising numbers of foreclosures and building vacancies. The city uses demolitions as a key part of its policy regarding vacant buildings. Because the average cost of demolishing a house in Saginaw is $5,021, the city spent about $537 per crime reduced.
This year, I experienced the benefits of demolition firsthand while living next to a vacant house in the DC region. Over several months, the house, which was waiting to be torn down, saw multiple break-ins. As soon as the house was torn down, the crime stopped, even though the lot remained empty for months.
In this case, it seems that the prospect of valuable items to steal combined with the low probability of being caught encouraged the crime. In other cases, people have used vacant buildings to produce drugs, start fires, or commit violent crimes.
Some believe it’s also the lack of “eyes on the street” that encourages crime in and near vacant buildings, and others argue that there is a “broken windows effect” whereby one broken window in a vacant home leads to further broken windows, simply because blight encourages more blight by signaling that there is no cost to additional vandalism. All these mechanisms might contribute to more crime in and near vacant buildings.
It would be even better to rehab these vacant houses or replace them with parks or other projects that benefit the community. But in many neighborhoods, the expected value of a rehabbed house is less than the cost of rehabbing it (this was the case for all the Saginaw houses in my data), and parks are often too expensive for depopulating cities to afford to build in every vacant lot. Some groups have come up with innovative uses for vacant lots, such as community gardens and pop-up shops, which could have an even stronger impact on the surrounding community.
In the meantime, demolishing vacant buildings can reduce crime and improve neighborhoods, even if the lots remain empty.