Why you should care
A house is often a family’s most valuable asset, but following tragedies like Columbine, it can become one more aspect of life that people can’t control.
When American parents think about buying a family home, many look to the suburbs. Beyond the lure of a white picket fence, affluent moms and dads opt to pay a premium — steep house prices and property taxes — to send their children to top-notch schools and shield them from inner-city violence. Or so they hope.
As we have seen increasingly over the last two decades, otherwise quiet towns with names like Newtown, Connecticut, Parkland, Florida, and Littleton, Colorado, can just as quickly become struck by violence. All three are now etched into our collective memory for tragic school shootings, among many others. In fact, tomorrow marks 20 years from the day when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 fellow students, a teacher and themselves, while also injuring 20, at Columbine High School.
No degree of foresight can prepare families or communities for such devastation. The attacks continue to echo for those who remember the sirens, the frantic phone calls, the terrifying waits. While processing this trauma, it’s reasonable that some families might wish to move away and start fresh in new towns. But a surprising factor can stand in their way, and it’s one that impacts the entire community.
House prices in school districts affected by mass shootings fell 8 percent over a period of five years after the incident — and housing transactions dropped overall.
Academics from the University of Georgia and the University of Illinois who conducted the research examined both the decline in school quality, including factors such as lower enrollment and teacher numbers at the schools, as well as the stigma attached to the area after the school shootings. Based on data from 15 violent school episodes between 1998 and 2014, they found that the average house price dropped around $15,000 and that the strongest drops impacted homes with more bedrooms — those the most likely to include school-age children. In some parts of the districts, the drop was as steep as 14 percent, or nearly $20,000.
There’s no doubt that the safety of a surrounding neighborhood influences price tags. But because mass school shootings tend to be isolated incidents, this dip probably isn’t linked to the probability of it happening again, says study co-author Juan Sebastián Muñoz. Instead, he points to stigma — the fear of proximity to a school where a shooting has occurred — as a likely influencer.
Just as people might be wary of purchasing a home where somebody was murdered or of flying on an airline associated with a recent crash, a sense of discomfort can drive behavior rather than expectations of a recurrence. So people pay more to live elsewhere. Home buyers are “willing to pay to live in a more secure area,” says Muñoz. “[They’re] paying to avoid future crime.”
Stigma-related unease can have tangible effects, not only for homes affected by crime but also within surrounding areas. In fact, the U.S. property market loses an estimated $2.3 billion each year because of homicides — with homes where murders occurred, as well as those in the neighborhood, tumbling in value as a result.
The very nature of stigma, however, makes it hard to quantify its impact, Muñoz says. But another study published earlier this year looked specifically at social stigma related to the Columbine shooting and established a related 6 percent decline in property values among houses within the district the year after the shooting. This translates to a $13 million loss in property sales in 2000. The paper contrasted isolated violence with natural disasters like hurricanes, which might cause devaluation due to worry about potential property damage during next hurricane season or about local government’s effectiveness at handling crises.
It’s not only potential homeowners who drive the trend. Perceptions of crime by real estate agents can be as influential as that of the community, says Susan Jacobs, a retired resident of Wilmington, Delaware, a city that has experienced elevated crime rates and declining home values. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that compounds over time, as agents set prices based on recent sales values. “You could wipe out crime tomorrow in Wilmington,” says Jacobs. But nothing will change, she says, “until properties start to sell at a higher price” — which takes one buyer who’s willing to pay more.
There’s much left to understand about the connection between school violence, education quality, home values and crime. Circumstances differ, and the research is too limited to draw sweeping conclusions. Researchers are working with a sample size based on the number of communities that have experienced mass school shootings, and with the rapid rise of school shootings since Columbine, they often have a limited number of years post-shooting to examine.
After a mass school shooting, teachers, students and parents have to process irrevocable trauma, rebuild confidence in the school and struggle with being in a town associated with American tragedy. And there are other lasting effects beyond these intangibles.
In turn, community members who have already suffered so much — owing to circumstances beyond their control — are faced with struggling schools and towns that can fail to thrive due to a decline in what for many families is their greatest financial asset and treasure: their homes.