Photo of boarded up houses

Areas of vacancy in Cleveland overlap with “hot spots” of violent crime and lead exposure, new study finds

Significant pockets of concentrated vacancy in Cleveland co-occur with hot spots of lead exposure, violent crime, homicide, weapons violation and aggravated assaults, according to a new study from Case Western Reserve University.

Seeking to better understand the spillover effects of vacant properties on the health and safety of city residents—to strategize potential solutions—the nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy (the Land Conservancy) commissioned the report from Case Western Reserve’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development (Poverty Center).

“While it’s well-known that vacant and abandoned properties decrease the value of surrounding properties, this study also illuminates the phenomenon’s harmful effects on people, public health, safety and the future of our city,” said Jim Rokakis, vice president of the Land Conservancy and director of its Thriving Communities program.

The report, available online, provides useful insight to policymakers considering ways to remediate vacant and blighted properties. Featuring dynamic data and colorful interactive maps, researchers designed the study to be easily digestible for law enforcement and city planners to pinpoint and counteract links between vacancy, crime, poverty and lead exposure.

April Urban“Our findings are surprising—especially the concentration of violent crime in areas of vacant properties, since one might assume fewer people would be in these areas,” said April Hirsh Urban, a research assistant at the Poverty Center and the report’s co-author. “But where vacancy and lead exposure are at elevated levels and overlap, there is more likely to be violent crime, especially homicide, rape, robbery, weapons violations and aggravated assault.”

Hot spots of violent crime and lead exposure were most concentrated on the northeast, southeast and near-west sides of Cleveland, with other significant areas spanning the Buckeye-Shaker, Mount Pleasant, Union Miles and Slavic Village neighborhoods.

The report supports the belief that clusters of vacant homes can become unguarded locations for illicit activity or signal social disorder, making them vulnerable to potential criminals. But areas of vacancy can also be so concentrated with so few residents that understanding and quantifying issues can be difficult.

The study is the first in Cleveland to combine a comprehensive survey of all properties with health and crime data. Researchers analyzed information on more than 158,000 city parcels—including vacancy status, the condition of any structures on the property and photos—collected by the Land Conservancy in 2015.

Vacant properties continue to be a persistent problem in Cleveland and in other cities throughout the country. As foreclosures escalated in the late 2000s, many properties stayed vacant longer, particularly when owned by banks. With the housing crisis extending to a larger financial crisis, scores more properties became vacant, home values plummeted and homeowners and banks walked away from underwater mortgages.

The study was funded by and will be used by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA).

“The OHFA has been a critical partner in our fight against blight in Ohio,” Rokakis said. “Many thanks are due for their support of this study, which affirms the importance of blight removal.”