By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black
(WIB) – Abandoned homes are known to trigger a number of public health concerns for those living near them, including gun violence. But what happens when these houses are fixed up?
A group of researchers found that repairing empty, neglected homes lowers the rate of gun violence in the area.
The study, published in Dec. 2022 in JAMA Internal Medicine, was conducted in Philadelphia’s predominately Black, lower-income neighborhoods — a city with 10,000-plus abandoned homes and 40,000 vacant lots.
Eugenia South, the faculty director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Health Lab, and other researchers, sorted 3,265 abandoned houses into three groups.
The first group received full remediation: working windows and doors, trash pickup, and weeding. The second set of houses received only front yard trash and weed clearing. The third and final group acted as the control, receiving no fixing up at all.
The team found that in the areas near the remediated homes, there was a 13.12% drop in gun assaults, a 8.43% drop in weapons violations, and a 6.96.% drop in shootings.
They also reviewed the remediation’s impact on nearby substance use, but found no reliable change.
Residents in communities with abandoned homes and lots reported feelings of fear, stress, anxiety, and difficulty connecting with neighbors.
On the JAMA Internal Medicine podcast, South said, “every time we step out of our houses, the places and spaces around us are influencing us. They’re influencing our physiology. They’re influencing our state of mind, our thought processes, how we connect with people.”
Previous research on urban housing supports her point.
Studies have found links between the presence of boarded-up buildings, drug-dependence mortality, rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, and premature death.
Additionally, residents in communities with abandoned homes and lots reported feelings of fear, stress, anxiety, and difficulty connecting with neighbors.
Two studies published in 2018 by South and other researchers found that restoring unkempt vacant lots reduced fear of crime and depression among nearby residents.
And now, her study on fixing abandoned houses shows similar results of positive change, which she calls “encouraging.”
“We’re in a crisis in cities across the country with high rates of gun violence,” she said. “And the devastation that comes out of that is profound for people whose lives are taken, for their families, for their friends, for whole communities, and for the group of healthcare providers and first-responders who are working with victims of violence.”
Nearly 1,800 people were shot in Philadelphia in 2022 — hundreds of them were fatal.
But Philly — which is 44% Black — isn’t alone.
Other cities, like Chicago and Baltimore, are home to large Black populations, host thousands of abandoned homes and also face high rates of gun violence.
In order to truly dismantle the links between structural racism and poor health, it’s going to take several interventions at once.EUGENIA SOUTH, FACULTY DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA’S URBAN HEALTH LAB
South says that in order to resolve racial disparities, the country needs to reckon with its history of racist housing policies that led to segregated neighborhoods and under-resourced Black communities.
“With the concentrated disinvestment that many of our Black neighborhoods have seen, one of the things that has happened over time is a neighborhood that’s marked by trash, crumbling buildings, crumby parks, messed up sidewalks,” she said on the podcast.
South is currently conducting another study in Philadelphia’s Black neighborhoods. She and her team will fix up abandoned homes and lots, plant trees, and pick up trash.
For the residents who live nearby, they’ll be connected to public benefits, tax preparation, financial counseling, and mini-grants for emergency expenses.
“We’re really building on the individual place-based intervention trials that we’ve done and really combining them with the idea that, in order to truly dismantle the links between structural racism and poor health, it’s going to take several interventions at once that are targeting upstream targets.”