Urban building demolitions, firearm violence and drug crime


Although multiple interventions to remediate physical blight have been found to reduce urban firearm violence, there is limited evidence for demolishing vacant buildings as a violence reduction strategy. Starting in 2014, Detroit, MI launched a large-scale program that demolished over 10,000 buildings in its first 3 years. We analyzed the pre-post effects of this program on fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults and illegal drug violations at the U.S. Census block group level, using propensity score matching and negative binomial regression. Receiving over 5 demolitions was associated with a 11% reduction in firearm assaults, relative to comparable control locations, 95% CI [7%, 15%], p = 0.01. The program was associated with larger reductions in firearm assaults for the locations receiving moderate numbers of demolitions (between 6 and 12) than for locations receiving high numbers of demolitions (13 and over). No effects were observed for illegal drug violations and no evidence of spatial crime displacement was detected. These findings suggest that vacant building demolitions may affect gun violence.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    We used a negative binomial model to model outcome Yit, the number of crimes at unit i at time t, as a function of the unit fixed effect ai, the time fixed effect bt, and a constant treatment effect δ. Letting Dit refer to i’s treatment status at time t we have (including the log link for the negative binomial):

    $$\log E\left[ { Y_{it } } \right] = a_{i} + b_{t} + \delta D_{it} + \varepsilon_{it}$$

    We used a negative binomial model to allow for overdispersion of the Y due to unobserved heterogeneity. The δ term is the average effect of treatment on the treated.


  1. Ashenfelter, D. (2001). Detroit’s crime totals still a mystery (p. A1). Detroit: Detroit Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bach, T. (2017). The people left behind by Detroit’s ‘comeback’. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3kaxd5/the-people-left-behind-by-detroits-comeback

  3. Bell, R. M., & McCaffrey, D. F. (2002). Bias reduction in standard errors for linear regression with multi-stage samples. Survey Methodology, 28, 169–181.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Branas, C. C., Cheney, R. A., MacDonald, J. M., Tam, V. W., Jackson, T. D., & Ten Havey, T. R. (2011). A difference-in-differences analysis of health, safety, and greening vacant urban space. American Journal of Epidemiology, 174, 1296–1306.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  5. Branas, C. C., South, E., Kondo, M. C., et al. (2018). Citywide cluster randomized trial to restore blighted vacant land and its effects on violence, crime, and fear. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 2946–2951.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Clark, P. (2016). Can we fix American cities by tearing them down? Bloomberg Business. Retrieved February 24, 2019 from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-13/can-we-fix-american-cities-by-tearing-them-down

  7. Cwiek, S. (2016). Judge orders subpoena in Detroit demolition investigation unsealed. Michigan Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.michiganradio.org/post/judge-orders-subpoena-detroit-demolition-investigation-unsealed

  8. Data Driven Detroit. (2010). Detroit residential parcel survey. Retrieved from https://datadrivendetroit.org/files/DRPS/Detroit%20Residential%20Parcel%20Survey%20OVERVIEW.pdf

  9. Data Driven Detroit. (2014). Motor city mapping survey. Retrieved from http://d3-d3.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/7cfed5afb7654e2495ef4c1ead320aa5_0

  10. Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. (2014). Detroit blight removal task force plan. Retrieved from http://www.timetoendblight.com/

  11. Detroit Land Bank Authority. (2013). Detroit hardest hit fund strategic plan. Retrieved from https://detroitmi.gov/Portals/0/docs/EM/Reports/Hardest%20Hit%20Funds%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

  12. Detroit Police Department. (2018). DPD: All crime incidents, January 1, 2009–December 6, 2016. Retrieved from https://data.detroitmi.gov/Public-Safety/DPD-All-Crime-Incidents-January-1-2009-December-6-/invm-th67

  13. Draca, M., Machin, S., & Witt, R. (2011). Panic on the streets of London: Police, crime, and the July 2005 terror attacks. American Economic Review, 101, 2157–2181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Dynamo Metrics LLC. (2015). Estimating home equity impacts from rapid, targeted residential demolition in Detroit, MI: Application of a spatially-dynamic data system for decision support. Retrieved from http://www.demolitionimpact.org/download/

  15. Fowler, K. A., Dahlberg, L. L., Haileyesus, T., Gutierrez, C., & Bacon, S. (2017). Childhood firearm injuries in the United States. Pediatrics, 140, e20163486.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  16. Garvin, E., Branas, C., Keddem, S., Sellman, J., & Cannuscio, C. (2013). More than just an eyesore: Local insights and solutions on vacant land and urban health. Journal of Urban Health, 90, 412–426.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Heinze, J. E., Krusky-Morey, A., Vagi, K. J., Reischl, T. M., Franzen, S., Pruett, N. K., et al. (2018). Busy streets theory: The effects of community-engaged greening on violence. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62, 101–109.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  18. Herrin, B. R., Gaither, J. R., Leventhal, J. M., & Dodington, J. (2018). Rural versus urban hospitalizations for firearm injuries in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 142, e20173318.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Ho, D. E., Imai, K., King, G., & Stuart, E. A. (2007). Matching as nonparametric preprocessing for reducing model dependence in parametric causal inference. Political Analysis, 15, 199–236.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hohl, B. C., Wiley, S., Wiebe, D. J., Culyba, A. J., Drake, R., & Branas, C. C. (2017). Association of drug and alcohol use with adolescent firearm homicide at individual, family, and neighborhood levels. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177, 317–324.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  21. Johnson, S. D., Guerette, R. T., & Bowers, K. (2014). Crime displacement: What we know, what we don’t know, and what it means for crime reduction. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10, 549–571.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kelling, G. L., & Wilson, J. Q. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly, 249, 29–38.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Kondo, M., Hohl, B., Han, S., & Branas, C. (2016). Effects of greening and community reuse of vacant lots on crime. Urban Studies, 53, 3279–3295.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Kondo, M. C., Keene, D., Hohl, B. C., MacDonald, J. M., & Branas, C. C. (2015). A difference-in-differences study of the effects of a new abandoned building remediation strategy on safety. PLoS ONE, 10, e0129582.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  25. Kondo, M. C., Morrison, C., Jacoby, S. F., Elliot, L., Poche, A., Theall, K. P., et al. (2018). Blight abatement of vacant land and crime in New Orleans. Public Health Reports, 133, 650–657.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Krysan, M., Couper, M. P., Farley, R., & Forman, T. A. (2009). Does race matter in neighborhood preferences? Results from a video experiment. American Journal of Sociology, 115, 527–559.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kuo, F. E. (2001). Coping with poverty: Impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environmental Behavior, 33, 5–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Pustejovsky, J. E., & Tipton, E. (2018). Small-sample methods for cluster-robust variance estimation and hypothesis testing in fixed effects models. Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, 36, 672–683.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Rosenbaum, P. R. (2002). Observational studies. New York, NY: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Smith, L., Lafond, K., & Moehlman, L. (2018). Data analysis: ‘Modern-day redlining’ happening in Detroit and Lansing. Michigan Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.michiganradio.org/post/data-analysis-modern-day-redlining-happening-detroit-and-lansing

  31. Spader, J., Schuetz, J., & Cortes, A. (2016). Fewer vacants, fewer crimes? Impacts of neighborhood revitalization policies on crime. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 60, 73–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Spelman, W. (1993). Abandoned buildings: Magnets for crime? Journal of Criminal Justice, 2, 481–495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Stacy, C. P. (2018). The effect of vacant building demolitions on crime under depopulation. Journal of Regional Science, 58, 100–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Stafford, K. (2017). Detroit reveals plan to board up 11,000 vacant homes in two years. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2017/08/10/detroit-vacant-home-blight/556322001/

  35. Telep, C. W., Weisburd, D., Gill, C. E., Vitter, Z., & Teichman, D. (2014). Displacement of crime and diffusion of crime control benefits in large-scale geographic areas: A systematic review. J Exp Criminol, 10, 515–548.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. The Economist. (2017). The end of blight is in sight (424(9058), p. 21). The Economist.

  37. Wheeler, A. P., Kim, D.-Y., & Phillips, S. W. (2018). The effect of housing demolitions on crime in Buffalo, New York. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 55, 390–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Wilkinson, M. (2017). Detroit police improve response times. But not all neighborhoods are equal. Detroit Journalism Cooperative. Retrieved from October 3, 2017, from https://www.bridgemi.com/detroit-journalism-cooperative/detroit-police-improve-response-times-not-all-neighborhoods-are-equal

  39. Wing, C., Simon, K., & Bello-Gomez, R. A. (2018). Designing difference in difference studies: Best practices for public health policy research keywords. Annual Review of Public Health, 39, 453–469.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors thank Erica Raleigh (Data Driven Detroit) and Diana Flora (Detroit Police Department) for helpful consultations regarding the property survey and police department datasets used in this analysis.


This work has been supported by the Firearm-safety Among Children and Teens (FACTS) Consortium (NICHD 1R24HD087149-01A1). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the funding agency. No honoraria, grants or other form of payment were received for producing this manuscript.

Author information




JJ conceived the project, conducted the analyses and drafted the manuscript. JJ and LM designed the model. CB, MZ and DH contributed to the interpretation of the results. All authors provided critical feedback and helped shape the research, analysis and manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan Jay.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

Jonathan Jay, Luke W. Miratrix, Charles C. Branas, Marc A. Zimmerman, David Hemenway declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health institutional review board waived review of this study as non-human subjects research.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 61 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 74 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jay, J., Miratrix, L.W., Branas, C.C. et al. Urban building demolitions, firearm violence and drug crime. J Behav Med 42, 626–634 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-019-00031-6

Download citation


  • Firearm
  • Violence
  • Drugs
  • Demolitions
  • Blight remediation