VCU study finds ‘slumlords’ at root of community violence

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new study from Virginia Commonwealth University has uncovered a link between ‘slumlords’ who fail to maintain the properties they rent out and higher levels of violence in Richmond communities.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was helmed by Dr. Samuel West, an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia State University who led the study during his post-doctoral research at VCU.

“The more dilapidated properties that aren’t inhabitable that are in a neighborhood, those tend to correlate with a lot of different forms of crime,” Dr. West said in an interview with 8News. He added that the VCU study focused on assault and homicide rates as measures of community violence.

The study also found that higher rates of violence were most strongly associated with negligence by commercial landlords and larger companies, not private owners.

“It was actually more impactful to look at it from the perspective of properties that were owned by companies than it was to consider the delinquency of private properties,” he said, adding that in 144 out of 148 Richmond neighborhoods, landlord tax delinquency was associated with higher rates of violent crime.

While the study has broad implications for housing policy, West said it still couldn’t shed light on the causal relationship between violence and negligent landlords.

“I do have to preface this by urging caution,” he said.

But, he added, other research in the field has shown that when housing in a community is unstable – whether due to high turnover or poor conditions – violence tends to rise.

“We refer to our neighborhoods as communities a lot,” West said. “But in some of our neighborhoods there’s really not much of an actual community because there’s such a high residential turnover rate due in part to these badly dilapidated properties.”

One central problem is that in Richmond, there are no protections for tenants living under tax-delinquent landlords. If a landlord falls too far behind on their property taxes, not only does upkeep of the property tend to fall by the wayside, but the city may eventually seize the property and auction it off to recoup their lost revenue.

“When that occurs, the tenants of that property, there are no protections for them,” West said.

West offered some policy recommendations for leaders hoping to address the issue, but added that as a scientist, his knowledge of how the city could tackle the issue was limited.

“I understand that these are likely lofty goals,” he said. “I think probably the most achievable change would be to institute some sort of protections for tenants in the case that their landlord loses ownership of the property they live in.”

That could include requiring new owners to honor the remainder of existing leases, or giving tenants and housing nonprofits the first chance at purchasing delinquent properties. For example, a law in California allows housing non-profits to purchase properties before public auction as long as they’re used to serve low-income residents.

“I think that it could be something that could be sort of mediated by City Hall,” West said. “We have no shortage of blighted properties in this city, and I imagine the folks that live in them, a lot of them would be happy to do some repairs if they knew they would be working towards something that they actually had some ownership of.”

8News reached out to city leaders for responses to the study’s findings. Stay with 8News to see what they say about housing reform in Richmond.



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