Uncovering JAPA

Impact of Low-Cost Housing Interventions

Throughout legacy cities in the United States, abandoned homes are conspicuous signals of economic stagnation and decline, racial discrimination and segregation, and suburbanization. Empty and decaying properties can undermine the community ties that foster neighborhood pride and improve quality of life. Given that these homes may host and encourage criminal activity, they also represent a significant safety hazard for neighbors.

Impact of Philly's Housing Remediations

In "Lessons Learned From a Citywide Abandoned Housing Experiment," (Journal of American Planning Association), John MacDonald and other researchers examined the effects of housing remediations on disorder, disrepair, and crime in Philadelphia.

The experiment focused on two current municipal ordinances as the basis for conducting housing remediations. The doors and windows ordinance requires that owners of abandoned homes keep exterior windows and doors in good condition. Meanwhile, the litter ordinance mandates that owners keep lots free of trash and overgrown vegetation.

To test their effects, the researchers identified 63 clusters of vacant properties in Philadelphia in violation of the ordinances. Homes were then randomly assigned to receive functional doors and windows installed by the Philadelphia Housing and Redevelopment Authority, trash pickup and weed removal by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, or no treatment. The researchers took before and after photos to facilitate a visual assessment of changes and analyzed police data to determine the impact of the remediations on gun violence and illegal substance use.

Trained raters coded images of abandoned homes for disorder and disrepair. Their assessment showed that the installation of functional doors and windows resulted in a significant improvement in the exterior condition of treated homes. Disorder and disrepair dropped at housing remediation sites. There was also a smaller decrease in gun violence and weapons violations in comparison with the untreated homes.

However, the impacts of remediations were generally localized to the treated housing sites. The condition of the surrounding blocks did not improve. Trash cleanup had a positive, yet more modest impact on disorder and disrepair. In addition, criminal activity wasn't significantly affected. The findings suggest that minor housing remediation interventions have a positive influence when properties appear taken care of rather than neglected.

While previous research has retrospectively investigated the connection between demolitions, rehabilitations, and crime reduction, this study represents the first purposeful assessment of low-cost aesthetic improvements. This approach allows researchers to document the impacts of specific mechanisms and interventions. Standardized visual observations, photographs, coding systems, and the review of official records provide evidence that upgrading targeted vacant properties benefits neighborhood morale and reduces violent crime.

Figure 1. Visual example of two properties rated on disrepair and disorder.

Figure 1. A visual example of two properties rated on disrepair and disorder.

Implications for Planning in Disinvested Areas

Cities across the United States continue to face the legacy of disinvestment and property vacancies. Large redevelopment projects may be infeasible and, in many instances, lack political support, but this study underlines the potential of small, place-based remediations to encourage urban rehabilitation. Installing new windows, cleaning lots, and removing overgrown vegetation indicate care and concern for the well-being of residents. Urban planners should more proactively leverage low-cost strategies to aid and strengthen economically disadvantaged communities affected by physical disorders.

This study has several implications for planning in disinvested areas. Practitioners can use standardized experiments and observation methods to evaluate the effectiveness of localized interventions. As planners seek more effective and equitable solutions to enduring problems, they need to understand the causal effect of existing and proposed policies, ordinances, and programs. Cities shouldn't accept abandonment as unavoidable but rather acknowledge the potential of place-based developments and remediations. More experimentation is needed, but upgrades to city infrastructure and homes that instill a sense of order can be effective.

Top image: iStock/Getting Images Plus - andipantz

About the author
Adin Becker is a student in the MUP program at Harvard University.

November 2, 2023

By Adin Becker