new england community developments

What Do the Neighbors Think? Assessing the Community Impact of Neighborhood Stabilization Efforts

By Erin M. Graves, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston
2012 Issue 1

As a qualitative researcher, I believe that essential to understanding the socioeconomic conditions of the population I am studying is to experience those conditions for myself. The ideal experience would be to become part of the population through years of immersion, which is not often practical professionally or personally. Still, when I began trying to assess the impact of a foreclosure intervention policy on Boston's high-foreclosure neighborhoods, which are also its poorest, most crime-filled and racially segregated, I knew I needed to be there, if not day and night, at least day after day.

The federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) gave the City of Boston several million dollars to acquire, rehabilitate, and resell abandoned, foreclosed homes in high-foreclosure neighborhoods. The federal government required grantees to acquire foreclosed properties within “areas of greatest need” (which HUD also refers to as “target areas"). The low-income neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury fulfilled these criteria with less than a fifth of all housing units, but nearly 50 percent of the foreclosures.[1] These two neighborhoods also had disproportionate crime rates: in 2009, 17 of the 33 homicides from firearms in Boston occurred in Dorchester and Roxbury, despite the fact that just 1/5 of the population lived there.[2] Similarly, 35 percent of the violent crimes and 24 percent of the property crimes occurred in these two neighborhoods.[3]

The NSP sought to limit what Mallach calls “secondary effects of the mortgage crisis— the economic and social impacts on properties, neighborhoods and communities.” Mallach suggests that these will actually affect people more strongly than foreclosure itself.[4] Attempts to quantify the impacts, such as the changes to property values of nearby homes, are underway. For example, HUD engaged Abt Associates to conduct a large-scale study to be completed in 2014. However, I know of no attempts to assess the impact of the program based on residents' perspectives on neighborhood-level social capital and social disorder, which are indications of neighborhood social stability. My question was whether the policy would have an impact on neighborhood social stability. Neighborhood social stability matters in part because it is linked to price stability: high residential turnover coupled with neighborhood distress lowers home prices.[5] To reach residents and learn about the level of social stability, I decided to go door-to-door in the target areas and administer the standardized and validated “Sense of Community” survey, which assesses residents' perceptions of social capital and social disorder. I targeted both the group of homes receiving the NSP intervention and a control group of abandoned foreclosed homes in the neighborhood. I augmented the survey with two open-ended qualitative questions.6 In addition to the eight properties acquired with NSP funds, I identified eight more abandoned, foreclosed properties in the neighborhoods, which serve as the control group. I intend to administer this survey longitudinally; the first round prior to the intervention and the second round after the intervention is completed. This method will allow me to assess changes in residents' perceptions of social stability. Therefore I am presenting preliminary findings reflecting themes from the first round of surveys and a discussion of how these themes might relate to policy formation.

Figure 1: Typical Study Neighborhood

map of abandoned property and participants

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

Believing that the rehabilitation intervention would have the greatest impact on those who live closest to an abandoned building my research colleague and I included all residents of buildings directly abutting, one house away, and directly across the street. Figure 1 below illustrates a typical block and the houses that would have been considered. Exceptions were made, for example, when upon visiting the block we noted that a house outside the above criteria had a very clear view of the abandoned house. The first set of properties we considered our “treatment” population and the second set we considered the “control” population. The number of buildings in our survey totaled 141, and these buildings were almost exclusively 2 and 3 unit buildings, for a total of 275 households.

We attempted to conduct an in-person interview at every unit in our universe. Based on a resident list maintained by the City of Boston, we estimated 538 qualifying adults living in the 275 households. We rang the doorbell or knocked. If someone answered, we introduced ourselves and explained the survey. We administered the survey to willing residents over 18 in the entryway or in some instances inside the respondent's home. We compensated all participants with a money order for $20. For the few residents who were not interested, we removed the unit from our list. If no one answered the door, we left a flyer with our phone number. We visited neighborhoods and conducted surveys between the hours of 2pm and 8pm on weekdays and Sundays in June and July 2011. We administered 58 surveys, reaching about 10 percent of qualified adults and about 20 percent of our target households. We also assessed the physical condition of all 141 parcels using a parcel condition worksheet.

I based the parcel condition worksheet on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Though the worksheet anticipated that we would observe “groups of people hanging out,” “drug use,” and “drug dealing” on our target blocks, we soon realized that none of these were frequent enough to make our parcel condition survey meaningful. The signs of distress were more subtle –poorly maintained lawns or debris on porches. So despite being among Boston's worst areas in terms of crime and foreclosures, these neighborhoods seemed rather ordinary during our daytime visits. In addition to visiting the 16 blocks we targeted, we spent time in restaurants and stores. Though patrons and employees sometimes offered us hospitality, we were most often treated with indifference and occasionally suspicion. One day, I remarked to my co-researcher that though we had passed a large and often-crowded city park with a new-looking and colorful playground a number of times, I had never before noted its name – Harambee Park. However, several days later, many people would hear of Harambee Park, where a 4-year-old boy was shot while on the playground by a gang of young men. I relate this episode to suggest what living on these target blocks might feel like – most of the time neighborhood life is rather prosaic, but is occasionally punctuated by alarming anti-social behavior that too frequently concludes tragically.

When residents either did not answer their doors or were not home, we attempted to contact them through a mailing.[7] Using both the in-person and mail-in outreach methods, we interviewed or surveyed 148 residents from 263 households. Of those, 82 contained qualitative responses (58 in-person interviews and 24 write-in responses). All but two participants were people of color, most self-identified as “Black/African American,” but others identified as Trinidadian, Jamaican, or Haitian. Additional residents classified themselves as Latino, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, or Dominican.

Preliminary Findings

While our full results will not be available until late 2012, after our second round of surveys following NSP intervention, a number of interesting trends among qualitative and policy-related responses are worth relating now. I analyzed the qualitative responses using the software NVivo, which allows coding themes. I developed an initial set of themes based on the two qualitative questions: general impression of the neighborhood and factors they believed influenced home price. Additional themes included aligning demographic groups (e.g., similarities in perspectives of homeowners versus renters or women versus men).

One observation was immediately obvious. While we intended to talk to residents about abandoned, foreclosed homes, the topic that most interested them was neighborhood stability, especially crime in general and gun violence in particular.

The residents who did answer their doors often welcomed us, unsolicited, into their homes, where we would listen to their responses. Three interrelated themes appeared in those interviews and mail-in written responses. First, residents did not view the abutting abandoned, foreclosed home as a primary threat to neighborhood stability. Second, residents expressed a strong belief in the power of but their alienation from public and private institutions such as city government and banks. The third theme centers on how residents of unstable neighborhoods define social and spatial boundaries to make themselves feel secure. After examining these three themes, I will explain how they might influence policy formation.

Resident Views of Abandoned, Foreclosed Homes

The target areas were neighborhoods with many abandoned homes [8], some on the same street as the foreclosed properties in question. Moreover, the neighborhoods contained many additional vacant parcels. Thus, with so many distressed properties in the neighborhood, it may not be that surprising that many residents did not know the home had been foreclosed on. As one male renter commented, “Wow, it's a foreclosure. Nobody knows about it."[9]

For those who did know of the foreclosure, several explained it as an outcome of an individual problem rather than a sign of a community issue. Though some explanations included real estate deals gone bad and “swindling” by banks, speculation did not include how these individual problems might relate to larger neighborhood issues such as house prices or crime. Some residents did recall negative activity in the foreclosed home such as trespassing and large amounts of trash, and their response to it, including calling the police, city inspectors, and City Hall. One middle aged female renter told us that one day she saw several children come running out of the foreclosed home. She called the police and a neighborhood group. Soon thereafter, “They came and boarded it up.” She had not observed any activity at the property after that event.

Additionally, contrary to accounts in the popular press, we rarely heard reports of crime in foreclosed homes. Most residents did not express concern that the properties were a target or magnet for crime. One possibility is that measures to secure abandoned homes, such as boarding them up, sufficiently dissuade trespassing. As noted before, these neighborhoods have many abandoned homes. Thus while an abandoned home may create an opportunity for illicit activity, with 99 abandoned homes littering the high foreclosure neighborhood landscape, there are possibly more opportunities than there are opportunists. However, even when foreclosed homes were not secured, our respondents did not offer many reports of trespassing on these premises.

Many residents made a connection between abandoned, foreclosed homes and vacant lots on the same block, suggesting that they viewed abandoned lots as an equal, if not greater, threat to neighborhood stability. For example, one middle aged female renter referenced the vacant lot next door to her (the foreclosed home abutted her on the other side). She commented of that vacant lot, “there goes your sense of community.” Resident concerns included the accumulation of trash and the lack of intervention from the City of Boston, which several thought could improve the neighborhood.

Other Threats to Neighborhood Stability

While foreclosed homes did not generate much commentary, other neighborhood problems, especially crime and antisocial activity, did. Residents expressed concerns regarding assaults, drug dealing and addiction, home and auto break-ins, prostitution, and gang activity in their neighborhoods, though not in relation to the foreclosed homes. Moreover, while residents referenced a variety of criminal and antisocial activity, many also recalled specific incidents of gun violence. Different residents would frequently recall the same instance of gun violence on or near their block. Residents on nearly half of the blocks we visited (seven of 16) related some episode of gun violence, ranging from learning about a shooting, to hearing shots, seeing people lying in the street after being shot, to actually having bullets penetrate their apartment walls. As one female homeowner recounted, “Believe it or not, I have literally witnessed three people lying in the street after being shot. I don't know if you'll recall in the news, Halloween they shot someone. Another holiday they shot, it was a teenage boy."[10] The fact that many residents from many target blocks had witnessed gun violence near their homes may explain why they did not see foreclosed homes as a salient threat to the neighborhood. Compared to an abandoned home, especially a securely boarded up one where little observable criminal activity took place, gun violence poses a much greater neighborhood threat.

The Role of City and Community Institutions in Neighborhood Stability

While crime and disorder may be seen as community-level problems, many believe these issues require a municipal response from police and city services. Respondents made comments regarding the performance of police and other institutional actors charged with maintaining social stability. First, many expressed confidence in the legitimacy and competence of the police and city officials but stated that their area is underserved. One young adult male renter noted that, “I feel like my neighborhood could be better if there was more cops in it."[11] Others complained about the performance of the police. However, no one argued that the police were not competent or trustworthy, which suggests that the institution is still legitimate in residents' eyes.

Additionally, many view local community organizations as effective in confronting some neighborhood problems and in communicating community concerns to city-level actors. Residents reported participating in a variety of activities including meetings, neighborhood watches, marches, vigils, email list serves, and neighborhood clean-ups, often organized through their place of worship. Other residents expressed the belief that neighborhood participation is necessary to bring about positive change and that people should become more involved. Many residents see building connections between local and municipal organizations as crucial in promoting neighborhood stability. One female homeowner “belongs to the neighborhood association which has monthly meetings and get a lot done, for example, they got stop signs. There is a community officer who reports to the group on the monthly crimes. Encourages everyone to call 911 if they see anything.” Both homeowners and renters tended to report successful collaborations between local organizations and the police in maintaining social stability, citing examples dealing with crime, intimidation, and even late-night noise.

Nevertheless, some residents did express a sense of institutional abandonment and alienation. A few communicated their frustration with government services, beyond the city's inability to maintain abandoned lots, as discussed above. One young woman believed that her community's inability to effectively confront instability was “because the state's an ass.” However, banks were one institution for which residents expressed an almost uniform lack of confidence and sometimes outright disdain. Residents often criticized connections between banks and government regarding foreclosures. Others placed the blame for foreclosures squarely on banks, mirroring general public frustration. For example, one resident complained, “I wish banks and other lenders could work with owners to avoid these problems.”

Stability and Sense of Community

It may not come as a surprise that residents spoke of their neighborhoods in positive terms nearly as often as they expressed negative views. Sometimes the negative and positive perspective would be contained in the same sentiment. For example, a young male resident noted, “I love the neighborhood with the exception of prevalent drug dealing and prostitution that occurs around the corner."[12] In reviewing survey responses, it became clear that many residents draw careful distinctions between well-intentioned insiders and poorly behaved outsiders. Such comments follow a pattern in which residents define safe areas as those inside their block, which they see populated by well-meaning neighbors. They contrast this to areas outside the block as populated by dangerous and threatening outsiders. Another resident vouched for her side of the street commenting, “We haven't had any trouble, as you say, where we can see. The other side is a different story.” Another female renter phrased it more directly, “I find that lots of things happening in the area are done by outsiders.”

It occurred to us that the distinctions might actually be coded language for racial and ethnic differences. These neighborhoods once housed mainly African Americans, but the demographics are now shifting to include Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Somalians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. However, in reviewing the racial and ethnic identity and owner/tenant status of the respondents who made distinctions between insiders and outsiders, no clear pattern emerges.

Residents also made distinctions about insiders and outsiders according to housing tenure, classifying homeowners as insiders who maintained stability and renters as outsiders who threatened it. Homeowners and renters both described homeowners as committed, responsible, and admirable community members and compare them favorably to renters, whom they tend to view as temporary and more likely to engage in disruptive or even criminal behavior. For example, an older male renter maintained a positive view of his block explaining, “there's homeowners and they seem to keep it up."

However, respondents did not always assume that long-term residents are homeowners. Residents repeatedly referred to long-term residents as a source of stability without directly referencing their ownership status. Respondents sometimes attributed neighborhood stability to residents' long-term presence.

Respondents did, however, make class distinctions based on income, at least where subsidized housing was concerned. As one older male renter explained, “And I don't like to generalize and category people, but the closer you get to the public housing, and to the, yeah, the closer you get to the end with public housing it's always a problem at that end. Where the private homes are you never see any police come down here, never any fights any argument, you know none of that outlandish language used. Or anything. It's very pleasant on this end.” Complaints regarding public housing include higher crime rates, police often being called, arguments and fights, and noise in general. Respondents also opposed the development of supportive housing in the neighborhood, whether a group home for mentally ill adults, halfway houses for young people aging out of foster care, or housing for the homeless.

The ultimate insiders in these neighborhoods are the intergenerational households. We visited many homes that contained three generations of the same family. These residents expressed a heightened sense of responsibility for maintaining not only neighborhood stability but also the well-being of their family members. The multi-generational nature of some households is another explanation for why people choose to remain in otherwise unstable neighborhoods.

It is not immediately obvious how residents' distinctions between insiders and outsiders relate to neighborhood stability or inform foreclosure intervention. Yet the fact that the theme of insider/ outsider arose with such frequency when residents were asked about abandoned foreclosed homes suggests that residents do make such a connection. The insider/outsider duality may in fact suggest why residents choose to remain in unstable neighborhoods: They view them as both good and bad places to live.

Sociologists have long sought to determine why residents remain in disadvantaged neighborhoods (beyond the lure of low rents). Early-20th-century sociologists somewhat optimistically labeled these neighborhoods “zones of transition,"[13] suggesting a dynamic process in which residents would move through on their inevitable climb up the economic and social ladder. As the 20th century progressed and many residents remained in this “zone of transition” for multiple generations, Gans suggested that residents were “trapped” by structural forces.[14] More recently, the Urban Institute began to label low-income neighborhoods, hoping to tap into what causes residents to remain in disadvantaged neighborhoods.[15]

However, explaining why residents remain in unstable neighborhoods is different from understanding how residents function in neighborhoods they themselves see as unstable, dangerous places. The patterns that emerged in our survey sample may indicate how residents cope with instability. When explaining neighborhood conditions, many residents employ social and spatial boundaries, between good and bad places, between “us” and “them,” and between insiders and outsiders, perhaps similar to how many urban residents distinguish safe places from unsafe ones. For residents of highly unstable neighborhoods, however, these boundaries are more tightly drawn, encompassing perhaps a street, a section of the street, or sometimes just the dwelling unit itself.

Social Stability and Public Policy

I believe that the distinctions residents make between insiders and outsiders provides a window into understanding the relationships among household stability, neighborhood stability, and the role of public policy. Household or individual stability is the result of consistency and predictability, which allow household members to thrive. From an individual or family stability perspective, living in highly unsafe and unstable environments makes no sense; the family would be far better off moving to a safe, predictable environment. Yet for complex reasons, many residents stay. Conversely, from a community perspective, residential turnover erodes stability. Many studies show that high residential turnover is closely correlated with higher levels of crime and lower quality of life. The community is better off the longer its members stay.

This situation might seem like a paradox: while it is in an individual's best interest to leave an unstable neighborhood, it is in the community's best interest that he or she stays (assuming that the individual is not a source of neighborhood problems). However, the situation is actually a justification for policy intervention to break the familiar vicious cycle: creating safe, stable communities encourages families to stay, and families who stay are critical in ensuring stability and stability. Residents who remain in unstable neighborhoods contribute to neighborhood stability. Insights from residents about how they maintain a sense of stability suggest how residents make staying tolerable and how policy can enhance the tolerability of unstable places.

Residents of unstable neighborhoods construct a sense of safety by dividing their communities both spatially and socially into areas of positively influencing insiders and negatively influencing outsiders. Making spatial distinctions, such as viewing their part of their block as a safe zone and making social distinctions between those seen as committed to neighborhood safety and those who are not, appears to help residents cope with living in unstable communities. This coping mechanism could be enhanced through policy intervention.

Together, these findings suggest that effective neighborhood stabilization in low-income neighborhoods should support foreclosure remediation in several ways. While it is too soon to make recommendations for Boston's program in particular (and I know of no similar studies with which to compare results), I will draw some simple conclusions – while attempting to avoid generalizations.

First, policy needs to support the linkages residents make between social stability and price stability. Policies must do more than promote the creation of desirable dwelling units; they must foster neighborhood environments where people choose to stay. This includes helping residents expand their spatial and social boundaries of whom they consider inside and outside the “safe zone.” This may involve simple measures like rethinking the “block party” approach, which may reinforce insular thinking. Instead cities should encourage residents to meet neighbors from a wider radius. At the target block level, placing homeowners in NSP homes may signal to the community that the city believes this is a place worth investing in.

Second, policy needs to recognize that residents in highly distressed neighborhoods see far greater threats to neighborhood stability than home foreclosure: gun violence ranks Number One. Nevertheless, even vacant lots appear to increase Boston residents' sense of unease more than vacant homes do. Boston is fortunate that most residents endorse police and city power. Stabilization policies can enhance governance through augmented police presence, vigilant code enforcement, and priority responsiveness to citizen complaints. All of these actions will increase residents' confidence that the City is committed to supporting distressed communities.

Third, policies need to capitalize on the strength of neighborhood and municipal organizations and promote connections between them. Though some of the residents we interviewed participate in neighborhood organizations, many view local and city institutions as effective. Policy makers might do well to visit these neighborhood organizations, arrange collaborations with them, and solicit residents' ideas about how to confront neighborhood problems. In any event, policy should actively support community governance, encouraging neighborhood organizations to convene meetings and events that embolden residents to broaden their boundaries and regain a sense of control over the larger neighborhood.

Hopefully, the information presented here might call into question some seemingly untested assertions, such as one made by the Vacant Properties Campaign that, “by all accounts vacant properties are a curse. Just ask anyone who lives next to a drug den, a boarded-up firetrap or a trash filled lot."[16] Or the assumption that “the growing crisis in vacant and abandoned properties, communities are increasingly saddled with empty, deteriorating houses that devalue neighboring properties, attract crime, and demoralize neighborhoods."[17] We talked to people in distressed neighborhoods about abandoned properties near them. While residents felt concerned about neighborhood conditions, these concerns often extended far beyond the abandoned property. It might be that neighbors living in less socially distressed neighborhoods would express more concern about foreclosed properties. Our follow-up survey next year will tell us more about how formerly abandoned properties (now renovated and occupied) affect residents' sense of neighborhood stability. We can also compare these reactions to those of residents who live next to the control properties, some likely to remain abandoned, and others possibly rehabilitated through the private market. By comparing residents' reactions before and after the intervention, we hope to gain a fuller understanding of the impact of the foreclosure intervention policy.

Endnotes

[1] City of Boston, 2010. “Foreclosure Trends, 2010."

[2] Boston Redevelopment Authority, 2010. “Census Tract and Block Group Geographies - 2000 & 2010."

[3] Boston Police Department, 2009. “2009 Crime Summary."

[4] Mallach, A, 2009, “Stabilizing Communities: A Federal Response to the Secondary Impacts of the Foreclosure Crisis” Washington: Brookings Institution.

[5] Kirk, D.S and Laub, J.H, 2010 “Neighborhood Change and Crime in the Modern Metropolis.” Crime and Justice 39 (1),441-502.

[6] To view the survey, please see Appendix A: “Survey Instrument.” pdf

[7] Please see Appendix B: “Methodology,” pdf for a detailed description of the methods used to recruit participants.

[8] City of Boston's 2010 “Distressed and Abandoned Buildings Report" listed 99 properties as vacant or abandoned in our target neighborhoods.

[9] For more resident quotes, see Appendix C: “Resident Views of Abandoned, Foreclosed Homes." pdf

[10] For more resident quotes, see Appendix D: “Other Threats to Neighborhood Stability." pdf

[11] For more resident quotes please see Appendix E: “The Role of City and Community Institutions in Neighborhood Stability." pdf

[12] For more resident quotes, please see Appendix F: “Stability and Sense of Community." pdf

[13] Burgess,E.W., 1929. “Urban Areas” In: T. V. Smith and Leonard D. White (eds.), Chicago: An Experiment in Social Research (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 114-115.

[14] Gans H-J., 1962, “Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life: A Reevaluation of 'Definitions'” In: Rose A-M. (ed.), Human Behavior and Social Processes, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 625-648.

[15] Coulton, C., Theodos, B., & Turner, M.A., 2009. “Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change: New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

[16] National Vacant Properties Campaign, 2005. “Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities” National Vacant Properties Campaign: Washington DC.

[17] Griffin, M. 2010. "The Community Reinvestment Act and NSP: A Banker's Perspective" REO and Vacant Properties: Strategies for Neighborhood Stabilization. Washington D.C.: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Cleveland and the Federal Reserve Board, pp. 151-153.

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