Turning to more rational voices

Since the Department of Community Corrections first announced its plans to locate halfway houses for level 3 and 4 sex offenders on its property adjacent to its female housing facility, the surrounding neighborhood has been aflame with concern.

Common sense suggests that they are right to be concerned. The protracted legal battles and DCC’s lack of specificity about the halfway houses have not helped assuage anybody’s fears.

All relevant parties have chimed in loudly. The Westside Neighborhood Watch, Alderman Steven Mays, community leaders … everybody seems to have an opinion.

But the one potentially most informed opinion — that of people who study the impact of “supportive housing” — has had almost no presence in the discussion. We’re not surprised. Given the municipal government’s track record, evidence-based policy isn’t something we tend to embrace.

Even so, a little expert advice is worth hearing. First, it behooves us to define some terms. Area residents have made it clear that they are concerned about the “negative impact” that such a facility might have on them. This putative impact could take many forms: increased risk of crime victimization; loss of property value; reduced feelings of safety; lessened control over an area they construe as “theirs.”

Unfortunately, for present purposes, any valid estimation of impact is an exceptionally complex task. In short, results are mixed, but a few relevant observations merit discussion.

A 2006 study performed by the Harvard University-based National Bureau of Economic Research found that home values in the area surrounding supportive living facilities (like halfway houses) tend to decrease slightly. Of course, the local neighborhood in question is already next door to a prison. As such, one wonders whether any significant impact on property values would be registered.

This same study concludes that residents in these areas tend to overestimate their risk of increased criminal victimization. It bears noting that most sex crime victims in the U.S. tend to know their assailant — 77 percent of completed rapes are committed by someone who is known to the victim.

As to the question of increased risk of crime victimization, a 2002 study led by Prof. George Galster at Wayne State University examined the impact of 14 facilities on surrounding neighborhoods in Denver, Colo. Galster and his colleagues conclude, “We found for the sample as a whole, and for the subset with more threatening clientele, no statistically significant evidence that the development of these facilities led to increased rates of reported violent, property, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, or total crimes. However, for the subset of seven large facilities with 53 or more residents, rates of reported violent and total crime increased significantly within 500 feet of the sites after they opened.”

On face, it sounds like the number of residents might be the governing variable, but Galster’s team goes on to state, “We believe that the weight of the evidence suggests, however, that it is not the residents of these large supportive housing facilities who are perpetrating these crimes, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary.”

In other words, increased crime in these areas may not come as a consequence of the halfway house itself. Rather, it may be that the shifting character of the neighborhood (i.e. people moving out in fear) destabilizes the neighborhood and undermines the forces that naturally inhibit the commission of crime.

As such, the bulk of scientific research on the matter suggests that the Westside Neighborhood should stand its ground, keep vigilant watch and refrain from understandable, but ultimately unsubstantiated fearmongering.