Sense of Safety
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Real estate agent Chris Mundy won't answer his clients' No. 1 question: How safe is this neighborhood?
"When people ask me that, I tell them the best thing for them to do is go to the police department Web site and pull up crime statistics," said Mundy, an agent with Coldwell Banker, in Washington. Like many real estate agents, he stays clear of such questions to avoid violating fair housing laws.
Both buyers and renters say crime concerns top the list of reasons why they rule out moving to particular neighborhoods in the D.C. area. However, research suggests that people tend to rely more on hearsay and gut instinct than on statistics -- and that tendency could lead them astray.
"Most studies don't show a link between perception and crime rate," said Dawn Wilson King, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina.
For instance, many people consider Dupont Circle -- with its pristine streets and million-dollar homes -- to be among the safer neighborhoods in the District. A few miles to the northeast is Petworth, a lower-income neighborhood that can spook pedestrians with its empty storefronts and cracked sidewalks.
However, in 2007 Dupont logged as much violent crime as Petworth and four times as much property crime, per capita. In fact, crime rates in tony Dupont beat those in much of the District, including some neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
That surprises Dupont resident Jim Smalley. "Adams Morgan and Southeast seem to be higher crime areas," he said. "Dupont feels more upscale."
Smalley moved to the District from Arlington a few years ago, in search of a more stimulating, urban environment. His desire to live near art galleries and music venues trumped his safety concerns.
"I like D.C., in general, because I liked the culture and architecture," Smalley said. "Arlington was a bland safe zone. The only risk there is getting beaten up by a meathead . . . if you spill beer on his button-down shirt."
Many factors influence people's perceptions of safety in their neighborhoods, said Sharon Lambert, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University. Graffiti, cracked sidewalks, abandoned buildings and broken street lamps all make people feel skittish, she noted. As a result, people in tidy suburbs often feel safe even if crime rates are high, while residents of lower-income areas may needlessly shutter themselves in their homes.
"Perceptions are a really strong predictor of people's behavior," she said. "If I perceive a neighborhood as not safe, I will be more vigilant or stay closer to home."
When fear keeps people indoors, they miss the opportunity to meet their neighbors, Lambert pointed out. That's too bad, because research shows that knowing your neighbors makes people feel secure, she said.