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VCU researcher: Property tax delinquency a strong predictor of neighborhood violence

Professor Samuel West has spent his career studying violence and its causes. He says some of the first causes that come to mind are those from within a neighborhood— internal factors.

"The kind of folk wisdom and some of the evidence that exists points to these internal facets— that people who live in communities where violence is, the violence is caused by the people that live there," West said. 

Professor Samuel West conducted the research at Virginia Commonwealth University. He's now a professor at Virginia State University.
Samuel West
Professor Samuel West conducted the research at Virginia Commonwealth University. He's now a professor at Virginia State University.

But during his time at the Injury and Violence Prevention program at Virginia Commonwealth University, he ran a randomized control trial for violence. And the survivors were telling him something different. "This role led me to have a lot of one on one interactions with these folks in their hospital rooms in probably one of the most vulnerable points of their whole life after this really… severe trauma. And it was a really common theme that housing was an issue."

So West began to look at the factors that made housing an issue, particularly how external factors predict violence. And to do that, Professor West and his colleagues compared data about the rate of assaults and homicides and tax delinquent properties. But they made an important distinction— separating homeowners from landlords.

"They were both predictors of violence," West noted. "But the company tax delinquency was significantly more. It was a much stronger predictor. It was much more consistent predictor of violence."

Tax delinquency, meaning that the landlords hadn’t paid their property taxes for more than six months. "This is consequential because it places such properties in a position to where the city can seize them and auction them and when that occurs, the tenants really have no protections because they no longer have a lease with the owner of that property."

West assumes landlords who aren’t paying taxes on their property probably aren’t maintaining them either. "So tenants could be living in substandard housing," he surmised.

Read more about the study

And, their living situation is unstable. They might be forced to leave at any time if the property is seized by the city and then resold. "Basically when that occurs if there's a large turnover in a neighborhood it makes it difficult if not impossible to form relationships with one another. And when conflict arises, that means there may be less motivation for me to try to work things out with you. So that duration of tenure is meaningful and it appears to be particularly important in terms of preventing violence or at least understanding violence."

The study gives some recommendations. The first is pretty simple— require new landlords to honor the tenants’ existing lease.

The second is a little more involved. It comes from a program in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood called East Liberty. "It was a slumlord buyout program," West explained. "So basically they went to these property owners and offered to buy these rental properties that had become dilapidated but were still inhabited and then essentially gave these properties to the folks that were living in them under the agreement that they would fix these properties up, to sort of repair the community."

After the program went into effect, crime was reduced by about half. West believes that it could have an impact in cities faced with similar pressures. "A program of that nature based on the data that we’ve seen any way definitely seems like something worth pursuing."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.