Being home-free of pervs has hidden cost
By James Alan Fox
Monday, July 30, 2006
Joe Homeowner is selling his house on Main Street; must he disclose to prospective buyers that a registered sex offender lives nearby? With national access to sex offender data, Joe may need to log on to www.icantsellmyhousewithapervnextdoor.com.
I am reminded of a long-time colleague who once proposed facetiously a get-rich-quick real estate scam. You float a rumor that a halfway house for violent sex offenders is about to move into the neighborhood. After alarmed homeowners rush to sell their homes in a fast declining market, you buy up their properties for a deep discount. Then, once the falsehood is exposed, the resale values of the purchases will net you a handsome profit.
While my ethical friend would never implement such a scheme, he was surely ahead of the real estate curve. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that each registered sex offender moving into a community has a 4 percent negative impact on housing values within one-tenth of a mile radius. Imagine the effect that my friend's hypothetical halfway house would have on property values.
For homeowners, the irony of this research is that sex-offender notification can be a double-edge sword. While it may increase family safety (at least that is what advocates contend), public notification diminishes property values.
Yet some shrewd real estate investors are trying to change the equation to produce only positive yields. A West Texas group is building new housing subdivisions, guaranteed to be "sex offender free" zones, in Lubbock, Texas, and Lenexa, Kan.
It seems odd that residents should need to relocate to gated communities to be buffered from sex offenders. Instead of inconveniencing innocent citizens seeking safe haven from perverts, we should perhaps construct gated communities for the offenders themselves. Call it "Sex Flags New England," seeing that the nearby amusement park with a similar name has banished sex offenders from its premises.
Sex Flags can provide amusements for its residents. Supported by local property taxes, resident sex offenders can frequent erotica shops without shame, adult video stores without picketers and Intranet cafes providing porn sites free of viruses and pop-up ads but no access to chat rooms where children can be seduced.
I'm thinking that Sex Flags could be so appealing to its residents that they'll never want to leave. And just in case they do consider venturing out to where the rest of us live, we could lock the gates from the outside. But wait, we already do this - it's called a prison.
Of course, I too am being facetious. In all seriousness, however, my point is a simple but vital one. It is time to admit that sex offender registration and community notification has been a failed strategy, implemented out of fear.
Those offenders who truly are dangerous should remain securely locked up (with or without the amenities), thereby eliminating the need for public notification. But those other sex offenders who can safely re-enter society should be allowed to do so without the stigma of registration and notification that makes their adjustment near impossible.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at email@example.com.