At 9:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, writer Douglas Rushkoff didn’t think twice about taking out the garbage in front of his Park Slope brownstone. But the routine chore turned into a nightmare when a mugger stuck a gun in his ribs and demanded his wallet.
Both he and his wife, Barbara, are writers, and they blogged about the incident. It was the last straw for the couple, who described themselves as nearly fed up with Brooklyn anyway.
After describing her husband’s terrifying experience on her blog, Barbara Rushkoff added complaints about open-air drug dealing and a recent hold-up of a nearby diner. “The deep, dark secret about Park Slope is that there’s tons of crime,” she wrote. The mugging was the last straw: The couple said they are moving out of the city.
Almost instantly, the post ignited debate on the Internet and in corner cafes about race (the Rushkoffs are white; the mugger, black), the perception of safety and, of course, real estate values.
The couple received a number of blistering e-mails that criticized Rushkoff for revealing the block he lived on and even the neighborhood, “because it hurts their property values.” The incident took place on a block of what Barbara Rushkoff described as $2 million brownstones in Center Slope, on Seventh Street near Seventh Avenue, close to New York Methodist Hospital.
Statistics show crime across the country has plummeted over the last 10 years, and city officials routinely tout New York’s status as the safest big city in the nation. Recent city figures show that although murders rose 11.8 percent in 2006, overall crime is down.
In Park Slope, the total incidence of reported crimes for 2006 was 1,076, down 12 percent from 1,228 in 2001. Yet statistics only reveal part of the story. As property appreciates in Park Slope, buyers are pushed into nearby brownstone areas, including Sunset Park, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick.
Up-and-coming Fort Greene, for example, had more reported crime complaints than Park Slope, but the area is showing strong improvement. Reported crimes dropped 22 percent between 2001 and 2006, with 1,199 complaints filed last year.
In the areas bordering Park Slope, where tony brownstones don’t cost $2 million, crime is a significant concern but is seen somewhat as a trade-off for lower prices, said John Reinhardt, president of Fillmore Real Estate, which specializes in Brooklyn.
“People in established neighborhoods like Park Slope do fear that a sustained wave of crime will adversely affect them, but dramatic turns are generally confined to areas in transition,” he said. “If the economy shifts and new and exciting areas slow down, then maybe values will drop.”
Though neighborhood crime rates affect the pricing of any piece of property, appraisers say that’s only one factor taken into consideration. Values are set according to the quality of the housing stock, access to transportation, the reputation of area schools, proximity to recreational facilities, and the presence of retail and support services.
Crime is a top concern of property buyers, said Heather Fernandez at Trulia.com, which tracks national real estate trends. The company’s local real estate guides include neighborhood reports for each city. Among all visitors to those pages, the crime tab is the most clicked-on out of six tabs that provide information about pricing and education statistics.
“The tipping point that turns a neighborhood from a safe haven into a dangerous part of town is completely emotional,” said Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “Buyers have to be spooked. If you have a broad-based trend in a neighborhood, there’s a good chance that it will affect property values.”
Miller recalled a prominent murder at a pay phone on Jane Street in Greenwich Village that received attention several years ago. “People paused for a while, maybe looked over their shoulders more carefully, but they moved on,” he said.
Crime or even the specter of crime is no joke for potential buyers. JoAnn Schwimmer, a broker at DJK Residential, recalls an open house on East 24th Street in Manhattan near a comedy club that had constructed a phony but realistic-looking crime scene on the street.
“People asked, ‘where did you send me?’” she said. “It was not the most successful open house. We didn’t sell the apartment that day.”
Crime rates have fallen in Manhattan over the past decade, but there are still areas that evoke fear.
“We still get a little hesitation west of Hell’s Kitchen in places where’s there’s not a brand new building down the block,” said Schwimmer.
Parts of the East Village, the Lower East Side, Harlem and Washington Heights retain their rough reputations, but buyers in those areas generally understand the risk.
However, between 2001 and 2006, crime complaints have fallen 6 percent in the East Village, 14 percent in West Harlem/Hamilton Heights and 18 percent in Washington Heights.
“I had one woman who moved into an apartment in the 170s and her neighbor scared her with tales about a gunshot coming through the window,” said Lisa Martin, a broker who specializes in Manhattan north of 96th Street. “She was scared,” until she accepted there was some risk and “began to really like the mix of people.”
Martin used to be skittish about showing property on one block in the 140s in Hamilton Heights that was known for its open-air drug traffic, but a prominent police presence has chased the dealers away, and she feels much safer there.
“Harlem has lots of great values and investors are snapping up property, so I don’t think speculation is going to stop,” she said. “The old image of Harlem is no longer accurate.”
“There is an obvious incentive to hide crime, which can happen anywhere, at any time, of course,” said the founder of the real estate Web site Brownstoner.com, who goes by the pseudonym Jon Brownstoner.
In reference to the Rushkoff incident, he said, “It’s a bad thing, but one mugging is not newsworthy. Unless people think that the city as a whole is going to experience a major decline over the next 25 years, it’s hard not to be bullish on neighborhoods with incredible housing stocks that now have a few years of momentum behind them.”