Density does not cause crime. For many years social scientist have asked whether high density housing causes crime. Not one study has shown any relationship between population or housing density and violent crime rates; once residents’ incomes are taken into account, the effect of density on non-violent crime decreases to non-significance.
After studying housing and neighborhoods throughout the country, Oscar Newman1 concluded that the design and use of public spaces, and particularly the sense of ownership and control that residents have over these areas, has far more significant affect on crime than density or income levels.
In neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, particularly those areas lacking jobs and community services, crime can be higher. Local governments can help address legitimate concerns about crime by working with existing residents and law enforcement to develop community-based strategies to reduce crime.
Management & Design are Key.
Local governments can also help protect the entire community, including new affordable housing residents themselves, by attending to details at the project level. Most important is effective professional onsite management, with strong tenant-screening and good security systems. Design, too, can play an important role in protecting residents and neighbors of high-density or affordable housing, especially by ensuring visibility. New developments should also contain a mix of unit types to accommodate different kinds of households. When residents have different occupations and family types, someone will probably be home in the development almost all the time.
1Paycheck to Paycheck: Wages and the Cost of Housing in Counties, published May 2004 by The Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference
“Nimbyism reflects the perception among existing residents that additional housing for the low-to-moderate-income range in their neighborhoods will hurt their property values or quality of life by increasing such problems as traffic congestion, crime, and crowding of local public facilities.”
There is no correlation between safe, decent and affordable housing and crime.
Studies show that what does cause crime (and a host of other socio-economic ills) is community disinvestment, overcrowding, lack of jobs and community services.
- Failure to build affordable housing leads to slum conditions of overcrowding, absentee owners and deteriorating properties with no alternatives available to low income families. March 9, 2011 Novato Working Group Agenda for Crime Trends link
- Chief Kreins reports that there is no correlation between higher density affordable housing and crime in Novato.
- Despite the addition of affordable housing at Hamilton, there is a decrease in overall crime in Novato in the last 10 years.
- Chief Kreins’ data of falling crime rates is supported by nationwide data. The FBI announced in May that violent crime in the U.S. had reached a 40-year low in 2010, despite two recessions.
“As the national unemployment rate doubled from around 5% to nearly 10%, the property-crime rate, far from spiking, fell significantly. For 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an 8% drop in the nationwide robbery rate and a 17% reduction in the auto-theft rate from the previous year. Big-city reports show the same thing. Between 2008 and 2010, New York City experienced a 4% decline in the robbery rate and a 10% fall in the burglary rate. Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles witnessed similar declines.”
Mr. James Q. Wilson is a senior fellow at the Clough Center at Boston College and taught previously at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine. His many books include "The Moral Sense," "Bureaucracy," and "Thinking About Crime." This essay is adapted from the forthcoming issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
The author notes one outlier theory that upon reflection makes a great deal of sense. Lead was removed from gasoline around 1978, leading to a drop in blood levels of some four-fifths in the ensuing decade. Lead is a well-known poison with profound behavioral implications: it is correlated with reductions in measured intelligence along with increases in aggression, impulsiveness, and violent behaviors. That elimination, plus regular remediation of lead in paints in older houses, probably explains some of the drop in crime.
But he also notes that Britain has higher crime rates with similar drops in lead and sees differences in incarceration length as a factor. Criminals spend more time in the slammer in the US than Britain even when they are incarcerated at the same rate. So maybe that has something to do with it too.
This drop in crime is profound: our inner cities are far safer, property crimes are way, way down; violent crimes have declined significantly. So all these factors -environmental, prison policies, and culture, add up to a major anti-crime argument.