News Release

Problem property intervention in Boston reduced crime and disorder

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Society of Criminology

Crime is concentrated in places that often lack capable landlords, and numerous U.S. cities have instituted problem property interventions that pressure landowners to better manage properties marked by decay, nuisance, or crime. In a new study, researchers conducted the first evaluation of the effectiveness of such a program in Boston. The study found that the intervention reduced crime and disorder relative to comparable matched properties and at adjacent properties for many years.

The study, by researchers with the Boston Area Research Initiative at Northeastern University, appears in Criminology, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.

“Problem property interventions are distinctive because they target a place and incentivize those legally responsible to improve its management,” explains Daniel T. O’Brien, professor of public policy and urban affairs and criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, who led the study. “We wanted to see if such interventions work.”

Researchers examined the effectiveness of Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force, which was established in 2011 as a multi-agency partnership to address criminal activity, nuisance, and unsanitary or unsafe living conditions at specific properties. Their evaluation, of more than 400 properties investigated by the task force from September 2011 to January 2020, assessed the program’s dual goals of mitigating crime and disorder at specific places and engaging and incentivizing property owners in that process.

The study matched properties targeted by the program to comparable properties, reporting changes not only in multiple forms of crime and disorder but also for proxies of enhanced property management, including records of investment in property improvements and changes in property ownership. As in other law enforcement programs, investigated parcels tended to be in Census tracts with greater concentrations of residents who were Black, Latinx, renters, and experiencing family poverty.

Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force intervention reduced crime and physical disorder at target locations. The program appears to have given property owners incentives to either manage their properties better (as seen in new investments in the physical conditions of a property) or sell the property someone who was presumably more willing or capable to properly tend to the location.

These benefits spilled over to nearby properties, with crime and disorder declining at other parcels on the same street after a property was investigated. Effects persisted for many years after an intervention, indicating that they were not due solely to heightened enforcement during the intervention and implying a fundamental shift in properties’ dynamics.

However, crime and disorder did not drop at other properties owned by property owners who had been investigated. This suggests that targeting a problem property can have immediate effects for the property and the street where it is located, but does not compel landlords to extend their improved practices to all their holdings.

“Our study represents a significant step forward in elucidating the mechanisms behind place-focused crime reduction strategies that target place owners, not just locations,” notes Michael Zoorob, a fellow at Northeastern University’s Boston Area Research Initiative, who coauthored the study. “Place management is a malleable characteristic that governments can alter through incentives, including scrutiny and fines.”

Among the study’s limitations, the authors note that their study needs to be replicated in other locations to evaluate whether their findings are generalizable outside Boston. Also, while the study demonstrated that such interventions can be effective, it did not determine what strategies were responsible for eliminating issues. In addition, the authors note potential biases in both the administrative data they used and the process for nominating problem properties.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation.


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