By Tim Cavanaugh
Remember when real estate foreclosures were decimating neighborhoods in Cleveland, eroding neighborhoods in Boston, creating ghost towns in Chicago?
No? Then maybe you remember the foreclosure-driven crime wave that hit Washington D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; and Charlotte, North Carolina; prompting New York State ACORN President Pat Boone to explain, "It is common sense that foreclosure and crime go together."
Still drawing a blank? Then surely you recall how 2008 Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both proposed a $30 billion fund to combat crime and blight in high-foreclosure areas. Republican candidate John McCain considered rising foreclosure rates so hazardous to civil order that he proposed having the Treasury Department buy up all the bad home loans in America.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) spelled out the connection between foreclosure and crime with admirable specificity last year:
It isn't just the foreclosed property that causes the problem. There's the next door neighbor, the community that also suffers. For every one foreclosure in a square block, one-eighth square mile, there is a decline in value almost immediately of 1 percent of every other home in that square block. There's an increase of crime of 2 percent almost immediately in that area.
You don't recall any of this because none of it happened. If the foreclosure-driven crime trends that journalists and politicians have been predicting since 2006 had actually come to pass, our streets would by now be impassible wastelands where Toecutter and Bubba Zanetti prey upon the citizens with impunity.
Yet crime statistics continue to head downward throughout the country -- even or especially in those areas marked out as foreclosure clusters. Camden, New Jersey, supposedly America's most crime-ridden city, has seen a 14 percent crime reduction in 2009.
Prince William County, Virginia, which has the highest rate of foreclosures in Old Dominion, nevertheless saw its violent crime rate fall by 36.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. Foreclosure-plagued Oakland, California has seen a 3 percent annual drop.
Still, the perception that foreclosures are linked to the deterioration of law-abiding areas is not necessarily susceptible to statistics. Many intelligent people say they have a sense that crime is getting worse as more residences end up unoccupied. Again, my own experience contradicts this: I live in a not-so-nice part of Los Angeles County and spend plenty of time in less-nice areas (in California nothing ever goes below nice), yet I am absolutely certain I hear less gunfire and fewer police helicopters this year than I did in 2006.
So I try to keep up on an area-by-area basis with the great sub-prime crime wave. Today I spoke with Lance Eber, the statistics guy for the Merced, California police department. Merced is famously known as California's "ground zero" for foreclosures. If any place were to experience an increase in crime, this should be it. According to Eber, on a year-to-date basis, 2009 violent crime (including homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary and larceny) is 14 percent below its 2008 level. What about victimless offenses that you might expect to see goosed by the presence of unoccupied buildings, such as prostitution, drug use, and vagrancy? "Those are continuing problems," says Eber, "but we have not seen any increases in those."
Am I missing something? If you click on the Charlotte link above you'll see that with a sufficient amount of gnat-straining and to-be-sure-ing you can create the impression of a foreclosure-driven crime increase even with the statistics against you. Could I just be misreading the crime numbers from nationwide-foreclosure-leading Florida, for example? If anybody has evidence of a foreclosure/crime correlation in the current recession, I'm eager to see it.
Because in a way, I agree with the ACORN president. It does seem to be common sense that high foreclosures would lead to an increase in crime. It's just that there is no evidence to back up the common sense.
By Tim Cavanaugh