Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The housing index and the prison bubble

By Jonathan Simon

Just think of prisons as a kind of housing, the new public housing, and it may seem less crazy to wonder if the decline of the portion of Americans who are homeowners may coincide with a decline in the portion of Americans who make their home in a prison. As David Streitfeld reports in the New York Times:

Even as the economy began to fitfully recover in the last year, the percentage of homeowners dropped sharply to 66.4 percent from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004. The ownership rate is now back to the level of 1998, and some housing experts say it could decline to the level of the 1980s or even earlier.

The astounding rise of American prison populations, which began in the late 1970s (when hyper inflation was keeping homeownership down), seems to have ended in the early 2000s, while homeownership was still trending up. The two are not tightly aligned, but in a recent article (may be access limited) I offer some reasons to be believe that expansion of homeownership to the solid majority of Americans, accomplished by the late 1960s, helped prepare a public more inclined to fear crime and to look to imprisonment as an answer to it.

First, homeowners have a geographically defined risk in the market valuation of their home (to which they are tied typically by massive debt, but later by some substantial investment of their own money) which is highly sensitive to crime associations and which is not easily spread (you cannot buy insurance for housing price loss, other than the mortgage itself which as long as you can pay it, enables you to stay in the home, but little more). Crime is not the only risk that can taint property, but it is one of the most widely publicized and thus active. It is little wonder that people look to recent crime mapping websites as realestate hunting tools (along with school testing websites) and that the location of sex offenders on websites maintained by some states have created measurable losses in the home prices of nearby properties. Renters fear crime as well, but not the reputation impact of crime on their property.

It less obvious, but I suspect the homeownership based crime fear fits with a cluster of solutions that include reliance on prisons, private fire arms, and living in a more securitized community (like a suburb, preferably with a gate). These are property based solutions that respectively isolate known criminals in non-sensitive real estate (usually located in a predominantly rural area less sensitive to home price concerns), allow a person to defend their home from attack or invasion (or give the illusion of allowing such a defense), and signal to the market of potential buyers that your home is particularly safe.

Police, at least in their role independent of arrest (where they are ushering people into imprisonment), in their preventive role, are associated with protecting people in public. When it comes to the home, the police are more associated with showing up to investigate the crime scene after you've murdered or raped (or filling a report for something less serious). Moreover, since police tend to go where the crime is, they create their own negative signals about the crime vulnerability of real estate.

Homeowners or renters, Americans are likely to stay pretty concerned with crime (although less so if it remains down in a sustained way). But a declining homeownership index may mean a steady shrinkage in the segment of the American public most prone to supporting (now obviously unsustainable) mass incarceration policies. The implicit renter majority that may follow, could be far more attracted to innovative police based crime control strategies.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.