New Penn Study Finds that Building Remediation Works.

July 19, 2015 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

PHILADELPHIA – Fixing up abandoned buildings in the inner city doesn’t just eliminate eyesores, it can also significantly reduce crime and violence, including gun assaults, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine report in the first study to demonstrate the direct impact of building remediation efforts on crime. The findings were published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Remediating Abandoned, Inner City Buildings Reduces Crime and Violence in Surrounding Areas, Penn Study Finds.

Following two years of the much lampooned Human Blight Committee headed by former Councilperson Denise Lee, a new study reaffirms what Preservation SOS has been practicing for the past five years and pretty much demolishes the policing based broken window model of neighborhood maintenance and points instead to the kinds of facade grant programs that revitalize neighborhoods like Springfield in the first place.

One of the most effective things that a city can do to prevent crime in neighborhoods is to help fix the facades of abandoned buildings.  There is a direct correlation between crime and abandonment, at least in philadelphia's experience.  And the City has been proactive in facilitating this potent crime busting tool.

Consider the multiple grant programs for facades available to small business owners in Philaadelphia:

Talk to almost anyone working to improve commercial corridors and they will mention two programs from the city’s Commerce Department: the Storefront Improvement Program and the InStore Forgivable Loan Program. Both designed to make physical improvements to the businesses and storefronts that are the building blocks of commercial corridors.

This breakdown of the programs explains how they work, what they have achieved so far, and what their potential is in the future.

Storefront Improvement Program

The Commerce Department has been offering grants to enhance business facades through the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP) since 2009. Since then, the city has issued 310 grants to businesses, according to Jonathan Snyder, senior program manager at the Commerce Department, and the official in charge of SIP.

The grants are provided as reimbursements after the business owner has made investments in their storefront. In the five years since the SIP started, the city has given $2.37 million in grants upon completion of improvements. This allows the city to make sure businesses meet certain conditions before funding.

The maximum grant amounts are $8,000 for a single commercial property, or $12,000 for a multiple address or corner business property. Snyder noted that a lot of businesses have received $2,000 or $3,000 grant reimbursements.

Snyder said that the program has leveraged over $4.06 million in private funding through matching grants.

One of the most obvious financial boons to this program is increased patronage at businesses with exterior improvements, and increased traffic at other businesses along the commercial corridor.

Some of the commercial corridor that have taken advantage of Storefront Improvement grants include:

The 52nd Street corridor (West Philadelphia) — 20 SIP grants
Torresdale Avenue in Tacony (Northeast Philadelphia) — 14 grants
The Lancaster Avenue corridor (West Philadelphia) — around 20 grants.
The Frankford Avenue corridor in Frankford (Northeast Philadelphia) — around 20 grants
The Passyunk Avenue corridor (South Philadelphia) — 20 grants.
Tacony in Northeast Philadelphia has especially benefited from SIP grants. Businesses along Torresdale Avenue in Tacony have received an impressive 14 SIP grants in the past year and a half alone, said Alex Balloon, commercial manager at the Tacony CDC.

At the Commerce Department, Snyder is very happy to work with community partners like the Tacony CDC. It “truly is representative of a strong partnership,” Snyder said.

While the City Planning Commission lists 270 commercial corridors throughout Philadelphia, not all of them are eligible for businesses to receive SIP grants.

According to Snyder, the overwhelming majority of corridors that have seen facade improvements are those eligible for Community Development Block Grants (CBDGs) through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These grants are typically awarded to low and moderate-income communities suffering from urban blight.

With this in mind, there are a few commercial corridors that are ineligible for these federal grants, but have still received city-funded facade improvements. These corridors may have been approved for SIP grants through bond fund initiatives passed by City Council in 2006, back when SIP’s predecessor program, the Small Business Commercial Improvement Program, was in effect.

InStore Forgivable Loan Program

Another financial incentive that the city Commerce Department offers to businesses along eligible commercial corridors is the InStore Program, which offers forgivable loans to businesses looking to make improvements inside their stores. The program was launched in August, 2013.

Given that the InStore Program is still in its infancy, Snyder said that only two businesses have completed work and been reimbursed so far. In Northwest Philly, Rose Petals Cafe and Lounge on Chelten Avenue in Germantown used an InStore forgivable loan to prepare for its opening last summer.

In Southwest Center City, the Igloo, which sells frozen yogurt and gelato, has completed work on the interior of its shop at the Gray’s Ferry Triangle.

Snyder says that he hopes to provide ten to twelve forgivable loans a year once the InStore Program really gets off the ground, projects that the program could add up to 65 jobs a year.

He added that interested businesses must undergo a more rigorous approval process than for the SIP grants, since any commercial corridor improvements gained from InStore loans would go away if the business closed

While the approval process is more difficult for InStore loans, the financial reward is often greater. Whereas SIP grants typically cover no more than $8,000-$12,000, the InStore program covers loans from $15,000-$50,000. Once approved, businesses do not have to make payments on the loan, unless they run afoul of program guidelines, and the loan is fully forgiven after five years, effectively becoming a grant.

The first two projects have so far generated interest. The Germantown United CDC noted that the success of Rose Petals has other local businesses applying to the program.

While a number of other major cities in the U.S. have facade improvement programs, Philadelphia is a pioneer with the InStore Program. The only other city that Snyder is aware of with a similar program is the much smaller Durham, NC. Snyder added that Chicago and Los Angeles might be interested in an interior forgivable loan program, but they are waiting until August to see how Philadelphia’s program fares in its first year.

Here is a link to the Tacony Revitalization Facade Grant Program, Tacony being an historic neighborhood similar to Panama Park or St. Nicholas

Door and window improvements offer low-cost solution to make neighborhoods safer

The research team, which included Michelle Kondo, PhD, a former research fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine now a scientist with the USDA Northern Research Station, John MacDonald, PhD, a professor of criminology at Penn, and Charles Branas, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, found a significant decrease in serious and nuisance crimes in areas around remediated buildings after Philadelphia began enforcing an ordinance requiring owners of abandoned buildings to improve their facades and install working doors and windows in 2011. The most significant reduction (down by 39 percent) occurred for gun assaults around remediated buildings in the year following improvements.

“Replacing broken windows and doors is an effective deterrent of crime—and a low-cost alternative to demolishing abandoned buildings,” MacDonald said. “During a time when big cities like Philadelphia are looking to tackle issues of crime and violence, this study points to a potentially effective tactic for municipalities to continue or implement in helping make their neighborhoods safer and ultimately improving health outcomes.”

Prior research suggests that vacant and abandoned places have a significant and negative impact on community health and safety.  The “broken windows” theory proposes that abandonment sends a signal to would-be offenders that committing crimes is acceptable and will likely go unchallenged or unseen.  A sister study of abandoned land, not buildings, conducted by Branas, MacDonald and others in 2011 found an association between greening remediation of vacant lots and reduced risks of neighborhood violence, stress, and sedentary behavior.  Other studies have found associations between boarded-up buildings and drug-related deaths and sexually transmitted diseases.

“City-wide, we found significant reductions in total crimes, assaults, gun assaults, robberies and nuisance crimes associated with ordinance compliance,” said Kondo, lead author of the study. “This could be the ‘broken windows theory’ in action, with new doors and windows and a newly cleaned building facade signaling to potential offenders that a property is occupied and crime is not tolerated.”

To address the 40,000 or so vacant properties tallied up in Philadelphia in 2010 and the issues that came with them, the city started by passing a “Doors and Windows Ordinance” in 2011.

Researchers found that of the 2,356 buildings cited by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, 29 percent complied with the ordinance between January 2011 and April 2013.  The team then compared the number of reported crimes and acts of violence at these “treatment” sites, where abandoned building owners had complied with the ordinance, to sites that had not complied, within one-half of a mile.

The crime and violence classifications included:  all crimes, assaults, gun assaults, robberies, property crimes (burglaries and thefts), narcotics sales and possession, and nuisance crimes (vandalism, illegal dumping, public drunkenness, and disorderly conduct).

Compliance with the ordinance was associated with significant decreases in many of the crime and violence categories.  City-wide, in areas around abandoned buildings that were remediated, over the 12 month average follow-up period in the study, there was an estimated 19 percent reduction in assaults, 39 percent reduction in gun assaults, and a 16 percent reduction in nuisance crimes. The size and significance of some of these effects, however, varied by section of the city.  

Control sites were not statistically different from treatment sites in terms of the median age of the surrounding residents, their household income, education level, or poverty level.

“This study provides useful evidence that cities can directly impact some of their most pressing public health challenges, like violence, by changing the places within which their residents live, work, and play, as opposed to relocating residents as has been done in the past,” Branas said. “These sorts of place-based programs are gaining credibility as practical and low cost, yet potentially high-return, health and safety solutions when compared to other options.”

Co-authors include Danya Keene, PhD of the Yale University School of Public Health and Bernadette Hohl, PhD of the Rutgers University School of Public Health and School of Criminal Justice.

The study was supported in part with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Societies Program at Penn and a U.S. Centers for Disease Control grant to the Penn Injury Science Center.

article compiled by stephen dare