Is Gentrification Really Why D.C. Has Fewer Murders?

Brandon Anderson / Flickr

D.C. was once called “Murder Capital.” In 1991, at the height of the crack epidemic, 479 people were murdered. But the end of 2011 brought good news: the number of homicides in D.C. had reached a 50-year low. The Washington Post reported that meanwhile, Prince George’s County experienced a slight increase in its number of murders, and that D.C.’s poorer residents moving into the county have taken neighborhood disputes and other issues with them, contributing to the uptick in crime.

Given the city’s demographic changes, a number of people are pointing to one reason in particular: gentrification. The narrative seems logical enough: violent crime tends to be higher in poorer neighborhoods, and demographic changes have left D.C. a wealthier city. That may make sense in D.C. neighborhoods where there has been gentrification. But it doesn’t fit when examining District communities that have historically had the most homicides and the highest poverty rates.

Since 1990, the percentage of people living in poverty has remained relatively stable or slightly increased in the east of the Anacostia River communities, places which also experienced the biggest recent decreases in murders. The number of murders dropped by 55 percent in 2011 in the police’s 7th District, where more than one-third of people live below the poverty line, according to census estimates. In 1990, about 28 percent of residents there were impoverished.

In recent decades, many people moving out of east of the river communities settled in Prince George’s County. But those individuals who were moving weren’t the poorest people in their communities, and they didn’t leave because of gentrification, according to demographer Roderick J. Harrison. Many moved to the suburbs because they could afford to and they were getting more for their money further away from the city.

What does explain the drop in murders east of the river? For one, violent crime nationwide is on the decline, and the exact reasons aren’t fully known.

“I don’t think anybody can say exactly what it is,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier says of dropping crime in D.C. “But I disagree that the demographics and the economic development is solely responsible. I think it contributes to our overall fight of crime but it is just one of many, many things.”

She continues: “East of the river is where we’ve seen the most success and there’s been very little [demographic or economic] change in that area of the city.”

Chief Lanier does cite a few reasons she believes contributed to the drop in of east of the river murders: a more coordinated policing effort; the addition of 100 patrol officers to those communities; and almost all of the Metropolitan Police Department’s specialty units focusing on violent crimes and offenders in the department’s 7th District.

“The other thing that I think is 50 percent responsible is that the community over there has been absolutely tremendous in terms of working with police,” Chief Lanier says. “That has historically not been the case. We had to go out there and really build relationships with people in the neighborhood. They have to trust us.”

  • Eaaae

    Exceptions do not prove the rule. The stories of Navy Yard, Columbia Heights, and H Street beg to differ.

  • Eaaae


  • Dcguy

    Gentrification led to the increased tax base that allowed for the hiring of additional police patrols.

  • wsinger

    you might have referred to Zimring’s new book, searching for explanations of NYC’s crime drop. It’s reviewed here:

  • Jack McKay

    Reduced lead exposure, due to the elimination of lead in gasoline and in paint, explains much of the drop in violent crime: “A recent peer-reviewed study (Environmental Research, May 2000) shows that variations in childhood gasoline lead exposure from 1941 to 1986 explain about 90% of the variation in violent crime rates from 1960 to 1998″. As people who were exposed as children to environmental lead “age out” of the violent-crime ages, the homicide rate is expected to continue to decrease, just as is being observed here.

  • Sean Gallagher

    “But I disagree that the demographics and the economic development is solely responsible.” I don’t think anyone would say any one shift is solely responsible. That’s stupid. But the economic shifts have not hurt.  As dcguy points out – it does help the tax base = more police and it’s more police that really has helped make a difference (in addition to community engagement etc). It’s also partly the age of information.  And violent crime is just not as cool as it used to be. Ha.