After reviewing the “broken-windows” theory regarding the influence of neighborhood environments on the behavior of residents and counterarguments from alternative theoretical positions, this article discusses how criminological theories of the link between place and crime can be applied to the impact of the current housing foreclosures on crime.
The premise of the “broken-windows” theory is that signs of neighborhood physical disorder are precursors to serious crime. The assumption of the theory is that physical signs of disorder--such as broken windows, graffiti, or abandoned buildings--along with signs of economic stress (homelessness or panhandlers), give rise to apathy and fear that undermines social control. In challenging this theory, some researchers argue that criminal behavior is the cause, not the result, of physical and social disorder. These researchers suggest that criminal behavior arises from a breakdown in the informal social controls exercised by families and the collective enforcement of a community value system rather than the physical condition of the neighborhood per se. Inherent in the title of the “broken-windows” theory is the emphasis on the physical quality of a neighborhood; however, the key issue may be what is happening within the families and social networks of communities and whether informal social control is strong or weak in its management of residents’ behaviors. It is clear that the current housing crisis that has resulted in massive and clustered foreclosures has affected the physical conditions of neighborhoods (abandoned homes that attract looters of appliances and other property left by previous residents). The rapid exit of families from foreclosed homes inevitably undermines the stable social network of a community and creates both a physical and social environment conducive to people seeking opportunities to pursue various crimes. 10 references and 2 notes