More News:

August 04, 2021

Philly's gun violence epidemic and the power of fixing up neighborhoods block by block

Penn criminologist says a city-funded program to repair homes proves that place-based interventions work to reduce homicides. What else can be done?

Crime Neighborhoods
Penn Gun Violence Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

There have been multiple shootings on East Somerset Street in Kensington during the past year, and all of Philadelphia has seen a rise in gun violence. University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald and his colleagues have led research showing that investments in home repairs, abandoned properties and vacant lots reduces crime.

Philadelphia and other large U.S. cities are caught in the midst of a deadly surge in gun violence, a trend that accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic and has left grieving communities indefinitely on edge.

Homicides are up 30% this year in Philadelphia and on pace to surpass a record of 500 set in 1990. The city nearly hit that mark in 2020, with 499. There have been more than 1,300 shooting victims already in 2021, up 26% compared to the same period last year, and more than 2,230 shooting incidents in the city, up 28%.

Turnkey remedies and the consensus needed to implement them are never easy to come by in the arena of violence prevention.

Big picture debates about gun laws, policing, structural inequality and tougher prosecution are an ideological slugfest in their own right. They're reform-resistant targets that necessitate political will beyond the boundaries of the urban sphere alone, making meaningful change a painfully slow march in times of extremity and excess.

As frustration mounts around a deepening crisis, Philly and other cities are confronted with what feels like a riddle: How do you analyze the problem of people shooting and killing each other well enough to offer expedient strategies that will succeed in simply alleviating it?

The field of criminology uses a multidisciplinary lens to understand the nature and causes of crime, often examining factors that are easy to overlook, or which may seem only loosely associated with criminal behavior in a general way.

If a block appears to be run down, for example, there's an an intuitive sense that it may be unsafe. What's less intuitive is the idea that fixing up that block alone can make it considerably safer and less likely to become a place of criminal activity.

"If you go and visit the blocks where the highest rates of crime are, you see these visual signs of blight, abandonment, structural repairs of homes needed, illegal dumping where there is green space," said John MacDonald, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you just went to these places and thought about what they need now, infrastructure improvements would be at the top of my list."

MacDonald has spent years researching the relationship between crime and block-level improvements to homes and vacant lots. The data is undeniable: repairing homes, fixing abandoned properties and maintaining vacant lots reduces all categories of crime in these locations.

"For people who are engaged in serious crime, especially gun violence, the physical environment can really shape opportunities," MacDonald said. "When you have abandoned houses and houses that are falling apart, there becomes not just a visual signal that the block is not cared for, but also these properties make it easier to conceal gun transactions."

Working with colleagues Eugenia South at Penn's Urban Health Lab and Vincent Raina at the Penn Housing Initiative, MacDonald's most recent research looked specifically at Philadelphia's Basic Systems Repair Program

Founded in 1995, the BRSP provides homeowners with city grants of up to $20,000 administered through the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. Funds are targeted to low-income residents with aging row homes that may have leaky roofs, electrical and plumbing issues, structural problems and faulty HVAC systems, among other signs of deterioration.

The BSRP has aimed to address historical disinvestment in Philadelphia communities that are predominantly Black and have been disproportionately impacted by crime and chronic unemployment. In order to be eligible, properties must be owner-occupied and not used as rentals. 

The Penn team's analysis of BSRP data from 2006-2013 included repairs for 13,632 houses on 6,732 blocks in Philadelphia. Researchers merged and mapped crime data from the Philadelphia Police Department over the same time period to understand how the city's investment in these repairs may have influenced rates of homicide, assault, burglary, theft, robbery, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.

If even one home on a block received BSRP repairs, the study found that total crime dropped by 21.9% on that side of the block, and homicides specifically dropped by 21.9%, as well. With each additional home that was repaired on the block, overall crime was further reduced as the block's housing conditions improved, up to 25.4% in total crime reduction for each additional property on blocks that had ever received BSRP intervention. 

"Just thinking about the built environment, we know that crime is highly concentrated on city blocks," MacDonald said. "It's true in Philadelphia. It's true across the world. In major cities, you find that somewhere between 3-5% of addresses – and somewhere around 5-10% of city blocks – generate half to two-thirds of all serious reported crime, like gun-related violence. If you're thinking about strategic approaches to reducing serious violence, it makes sense to think about places."

The study also looked at whether the observed reduction in crime changed when accounting for larger areas surrounding these blocks were repairs were made to homes. Researchers found there was not a statistically significant "displacement" of crime from one block to others nearby, though the research did not directly examine whether crime was displaced to blocks next-door that were not served by BSRP.

"It is possible that some crime was displaced, but most studies that examine place-based crime reductions tend to find a diffusion of benefits – meaning crime goes down a bit nearby – that exceeds displacement of crime going up nearby," MacDonald explained. 

The Penn study, published in JAMA Network Open, covered a period several years before Philadelphia's recent surge in shootings and homicides. From 2006-2013, the city averaged about 329 homicides annually, with a high of 406 in 2006 and a low of 246 in 2013.

If investments in home repairs worked like magic to slash homicides and shootings during that stretch, then the recent surge in Philadelphia illustrates how complex the issue of violence remains. Studies like this can offer valuable insight into the direct and ancillary effects of a relatively small program, like the BSRP,  but the ebbs and flows of crime are influenced by multiple factors beyond their scope and purpose. 

Academic research, encouraging and convincing as it is, will sometimes be met with a jaded scoff best conveyed by this underrated scene from "The Wire," unless the data and conclusions are taken at face value and understood as an important piece of the puzzle. 

If we try to apply this study's findings beyond objective merits, we run into a problem of interpretation: There has been a sharp spike in gun violence lately, and it hasn't yet undergone a block-level analysis with BSRP data using the same methods in subsequent years. 

Looking at the seven years since the Penn study period – a time during which the BRSP actually expanded – Philadelphia averaged about 332 homicides annually, which is roughly equivalent to the average in the study timeframe. Where that crime has been distributed relative to blocks with newer home repairs and those with a history of home repairs would offer richer meaning to the study's findings in today's predicament. 

Philadelphia's latest BSRP report includes home-repair figures from 2018-2020, when work was done to about 4,900 homes. Even during the pandemic, in the last fiscal year running through June, there were 2,610 individual repairs made on 1,540 properties in Philadelphia – mostly concentrated in neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia.

"This is the first that we have been made aware of a reduction in crime associated with the blocks where we work," said George Russell, director of home improvement programs at PHDC. "We have always known that the work that we're doing is stabilizing communities. We're making repairs. People are able to stay in their homes. They don't have to leave because the homes are falling down around them, or they don't have to sell the house and it turns into a rental property." 

Russell made no pretense about the immediate goals of the BSRP, but said the Penn study offers a snapshot of the wider impact the program can have on the corrosive influence of crime in Philadelphia neighborhoods. The improvements are felt by individuals and families, which is a much better way to conceptualize the study than dissecting its aggregate statistical carryover to the present epidemic. 

"It validates the work that we're doing," Russell said. "We're not a crime prevention program, per se. That's not what we do. We do this so that an elderly woman can have a roof that doesn't leak over her head, or a single mother can have heat in her house during the winter. This is a great benefit in addition to that – that we can quantify that it's having an impact on the larger community."

MacDonald and his colleagues say city programs like the BSRP provide multiple quality of life benefits in Philadelphia, while chipping away at crime in a measurable way that addresses some of its root causes and social ills.

"Just like there is isn't one cause to gun violence, there isn't one solution," MacDonald said. "I think place-based approaches have the best promise of fixing up neighborhoods that have major structural disadvantages, abandoned houses and housing that's compromised. People could use some resources, some investment, so that they can keep it up and it doesn't fall apart."

At a time when city budgets and services have been decimated by the pandemic, maintaining funds for ongoing or expanded investments like these is a challenge. 

The BSRP is primarily funded through Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, filtered through the city's Division of Housing and Community Development. 

Three years ago, as the BSRP's multi-year waiting list swelled, City Council approved $60 million in funding for the program, three times its normal funding amount. In a typical year before that funding arrived, the BSRP would compete repairs on about 1,000 homes. The new funding enabled that program to offer repairs on 1,500 or more homes annually. 

Demand for the BSRP is overwhelming, with about 300 applications submitted per month. PHDC spent the full $60 million it received over three years and is still applications that are triple the amount covered by its normal budget. 

A smaller portion of BSRP funding comes from Philadelphia's Housing Trust Fund, which has been boosted in recent years by the city's Mixed-Income Housing Program. That program gives developers leeway with zoning and affordable housing on big projects in exchange for payments to the city that support below-market-rate properties elsewhere Philadelphia. It includes existing homes eligible for BSRP grants and the funding of new projects to help replace Philadelphia's depleted stock of affordable homes.

This source of funding for the BSRP and other programs is in limbo as a result of City Council's recent efforts to have more developers include affordable housing directly on-site at their projects, instead of paying into the Housing Trust Fund. (The issue was explored in a recent article by Jon Geeting of Philadelphia 3.0, a political advocacy organization.

Since the Housing Trust Fund has several revenue sources, Russell said it's unclear whether the money BSRP receives from it comes from developers driving Philadelphia's construction boom, which faces its own pandemic and policy-related pressures. 

But Russell expressed optimism that Philadelphia's $400 million Neighborhood Preservation Initiative will continue to provide funding for the BSRP to continue its work at a sufficient scale. 

"We always need money," Russell said. "Money is always a good thing. Contractors who want to work for us is always a good thing. As much money as you can give us, we're going to be able to spend it."

Whether or not the Penn study helps support the case for additional spending on the BSRP will be among the many quest cost-conscious questions Philadelphia has to answer about how it will move forward from the pandemic during an epidemic of gun violence. 

Beyond immediate and future funding, the key mindset that MacDonald and his Penn colleagues hope their research instills in Philadelphia is that investments in housing, vacant lots and blight remediation generate major indirect cost savings and property tax revenue in the long-run.

Once the initial work is done, maintenance and upkeep are typically a smaller expense, yet the benefits can be immediate and long-lasting.

"A simple thing to point out is that if you can reduce one shooting, it saves a lot of money in terms of medical costs, pain and suffering to the victims, criminal justice costs, police and EMS response, and trauma to the community," MacDonald said. "All of those things have social costs. With housing programs like the BSRP, generally people don't think of the benefits in terms of reducing crime and criminal justice costs. People just think about preservation of housing, but all of these things are tightly coupled."

'Stitching the Neighborhood Back Together'

MacDonald's research on place-based interventions adheres to the belief that violent crime can have many motivations, but opportunity and setting are often what enable criminal activity to have a home.

In 2007, sociologist Peter St. Jean, of Chicago's of North Park University, published an influential book in contemporary criminology, "Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy, and the Criminal Point of View."

It features interviews with robbers in Chicago who would target drug dealers by strategically seeking out abandoned lots or areas with poor lighting where dealers most commonly operated

"They'd rob other drug dealers, who generally don't call the police when they're robbed. But they do retaliate – so that leads to more shootings," MacDonald said. "We have to think about how the physical environment affects both people's willingness to go outside and their sense of safety, but also how people engaged in criminal activity look at it from a strategic standpoint."

MacDonald wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in July theorizing one reason crime has spiked in cities during the pandemic is because fewer people were outside.

"That created empty streets, and empty streets tend to be pretty dangerous places," MacDonald said. "The sub-population of largely young men engaged in violent altercations, they're not all staying indoors. It really creates a lack of informal social controls. The neighbors aren't out to question people. It seems intuitively obvious, but it hasn't been talked enough about in terms of why there's been a surge in shootings in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. You had fewer people out and about, and police pulling back, as well."

MacDonald's examination of data on increased gun sales in the United States during the pandemic also doesn't fully explain the rise in urban homicides, which are often committed using older weapons, many possessed illegally. What has become apparent is that more people are arming themselves and the tendency to use these weapons in the course of conflict is self-fulfilling. 

"There's a vicious cycle. Violence begets violence," MacDonald said. "If people feel like everyone else is armed, then they're more likely to be armed themselves. It's just human nature. If the state can get some control of this again, you can get the momentum in the other direction."

Searching for hard answers that explain why mostly young people have become so quick to arms themselves and pull the trigger is a politically loaded endeavor. The same can be said for addressing questions surrounding the neighborhood-level reasons for elevated violence, like historical disinvestment and gentrification, whose tensions are felt in ways that statistics sometimes fail to capture.

When a place is being cared for, it just leads to other people thinking, well, this isn't a friendly environment to engage in illicit behavior. Residents are more willing to take some ownership of the space, too." – John MacDonald, Penn professor

Generalizing the issue of gun violence to cultural glorification and racial blame (read: knee-jerk, myopic claims about "Black-on-Black" crime, without an informed perspective) only fractures efforts to reach common ground in building safer communities, though certainly neither issue is trivial and young, Black residents in the city acknowledge as much

As we argue with one another about who and what is responsible for so much violence, there may be powerful truth behind many of the apparent causes, from deep poverty to high-risk offenders walking free from jail. Debates about these issues can be won, for what they're worth, but in the meantime, there are small actions to be be taken that could add up to lives saved.

"The issue of gun violence becomes very partisan in many ways," MacDonald said. "People are looking for issues around the Second Amendment, or it becomes an issue about long-term, endemic features of places, like poverty. The thinking is that we can't solve it unless we address chronic poverty. But if that was the case, we wouldn't see this epidemic of both rises and falls in shooting. Concentrated poverty is not changing nearly as dynamically as things like violence. There's clearly structural causes, but then there are more proximal causes like the built environment, people's sense of safety. I think a better approach would be focusing on that."

In past research, MacDonald's work in Philadelphia has examined programs like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare initiative, a sustained program that greens vacant lots. Not only has this program helped reduce crime, but residents have reported lower rates of depression following the introduction of green space.

"The crime reduction benefits are seen pretty immediately for vacant lot work and abandoned housing," MacDonald said. "We found that consistently, you get at least a couple of years of clear crime reduction, which can be sustained if funding and maintenance continue. The environment is not as attractive (for crime) anymore. People stop using that corner for open air drug markets, or a stash house, or to hide their guns in that place."

In other research, MacDonald and his colleagues have sent anthropologists into Philadelphia neighborhoods to study the effects of vacant lots on crime, finding similar declines.

"I've been meaning for years to look into the Mural Arts program and different mural programs to see what happens to crime when they roll out. It's on a to-do list. One of the things I've noticed, just qualitatively, is they tend to not get graffitied over and the places tend to be respected. When a place is being cared for, it just leads to other people thinking, well, this isn't a friendly environment to engage in illicit behavior. Residents are more willing to take some ownership of the space, too."

Rebuilding neighborhoods as part of a multifaceted crimefighting strategy will require that kind of social buy-in from residents, many of whom have seen decades of neglect or uneven efforts to put them on a better path. MacDonald pointed to former Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in the early 2000s, when abandoned homes were leveled across the city in hopes of attracting new investment. In some parts of Philadelphia, it simply resulted in more vacant lots.

"There have been efforts to rebuild housing in a lot of places, but often it's built for a higher income echelon or for the transitory student rental market," MacDonald said. "Yes, it brings some economics back into the place, but it's not really stitching the neighborhood back together the way it was, in terms of having multiple levels of income that you would have seen in the 1950s and early 1960s."

It may be simplistic and cynical to say that terms like "revitalization" and "urban renewal" are euphemisms for gentrification, but residents in disadvantaged communities have reason to be leery of the benefits of redevelopment. It tends to make neighborhoods objectively safer over time while incurring other costs that can make it difficult for long-term residents and those without higher incomes to comfortably afford living there.

"People want positive investments and changes in their neighborhoods, but they don't want them only to occur when it stands in the interest of new arrivals," MacDonald said. "What economic spillover benefits do the people who live there get? You don't want concentrated poverty, but you also don't want urban renewal that just leads to greater inequality. I think the evidence is pretty compelling that mixed-use, mixed-income is the way to go to design safer and healthy communities."

'The Little Stuff'

As Philadelphia and other U.S. cities continue to confront an epidemic of shootings, MacDonald stresses that an important function of healthy, safe communities is having residents and local governments who will do the work to take care of them.

Do residents clean up litter and debris, or maybe not litter in the first place? Can the city commit to reliable trash pick-up schedules and implement a workable street-sweeping program in areas that badly need it?

"Doing these visible, tangible things that community groups are trying to do matters," MacDonald said. "On their own, they can't do it all. The city can't do it all, either. You need everyone pitching in together – a call to civic action."

The best actions Philadelphia residents can take are those that make communities more habitable, bring neighbors together and encourage better relationships and communication with police, a point of view that has eroded since last summer's civil unrest.

And to that point, MacDonald believes police could do a better job of leveraging technology in the form of surveys that consistently track community sentiment about law enforcement and other services.

"The police department should be doing this in specific places," MacDonald said. "In addition to the response time and the crime rate for the last month, what's the community sentiment? Are people happy with the services they're receiving? And why not? Why has it gone down? How can your district look more like this district? That kind of approach could go a long way to build trust, because then it becomes an incentive for the officers and the commanders not just to treat everyone with kid gloves, but to actually care about the interactions since they know that there's going to be feedback."

There's no one answer to the amount of gun violence taking place in Philadelphia. Community grants for new programs and $155 million in anti-violence funding in this year's budget, including $68.3 million in new funds, will be a test of how well different approaches work in different settings.

Taking steps to address more tangible and visible problems can only help.

"If we want to have a real public health approach to violence reduction, it would be multifaceted and community-based, versus things that cities can't easily do," MacDonald said. "We shouldn't discount the importance of what sometimes people see as the the little stuff. If those things are done, if the maintenance is done, it will have bigger benefits, not just in terms of crime but people's overall sense of well-being."