Enclave of Sex Offenders a La “Arrested Development” = New Real Estate Reality?

FINGERPRINTRemember that episode of the popular TV series “Arrested Development,” where a member of the once-wealthy family tries to unload empty houses in their development by selling them to sex offenders?

If you laughed then, you now need to solemnly admire the show creators’ prophetic powers. According to Inman News’s reporting on this topic by Teke Wiggins, the increasing accessibility of data on where registered sex offenders live could ultimately “herd offenders into enclaves, depressing home values in some neighborhoods and scaring away families with children.”

Here’s a bit of the back story. All the relevant data – for-sale home listings on one hand, addresses of registered sex offenders on the other — has been available online (and as apps) for a while. (Federal legislation known as Megan’s Law mandates that each state collect information on registered sex offenders and make it publicly available, though many states specify that the public may access the information only for certain reasons, and not for others. California, for example, prohibits using the database for the purpose of denying housing.)

What’s new and different, however, is that various online services have begun merging all this data – although in some cases later “de-merging” it, as RealtyTrac (a major U.S. source of real estate listings) did, possibly in response to outcry from real estate agents and industry insiders as well as some legal issues. (See “RealtyTrac Wipes Hyperlocal Neighborhood Info From Listings.”)

You could look at RealtyTrac’s latest action cynically and say that the real estate industry doesn’t want to promote any feature, however snazzy, that puts “sex offender” warning flags right next to images of homes where prospective buyers might have hoped to raise children.

In the blandest economic terms, sex offenders in the neighborhood tend to depress home values. In fact, according to Wiggins’ article (“Sex offender data threatening home values, tarnishing neighborhoods and frustrating real estate agents”), knowing where a registered sex offender lived pushed down home values by 4% for those properties within a tenth of a mile of the offender’s house, in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. That data is from a study done by Jonah Rockoff, associate professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

The direst of warnings came from real estate agent Steve Clarke who, reacting to RealtyTrac’s initial data merge, stated, “This could literally bring down property values all over the United States.”

Yikes. But doesn’t Clarke’s statement cut both ways? If the U.S. is littered with sex offenders, then shouldn’t home buyers simply realize that it’s nearly impossible to find an area where everyone is sane and harmless? You could move to a “sex-offender-free zone” and still find local folks convicted of various other crimes as well as crazy neighbors who have 25 cats.

I don’t mean to minimize the fear that a homebuyer, particularly a parent, might have when considering the prospect of living near someone with a history of sexual assault, rape, or other such offenses. But as Wiggins rightly points out, there’s a “potential for sex offender data to mislead and spook consumers.” He details a story in which neighbors were spreading the news that a local 17-year old was a sex offender – but it turned out that his offense was to have had sex – apparently consensual sex — with his 15-year-old girlfriend, after which the girl’s father pressed charges. (In some states, a conviction for consensual sex, that is, statutory rape, can result in a registration requirement.) The young man’s actions hardly seems like the sort that should inspire panic and bring down local home values.

Wiggins also notes that the accuracy of sex offender databases is questionable. Changes of address may not be entered into the database for some time, if at all. And offenders often fail to register.

After talking to some criminal law attorneys, I can add a few more reasons why prospective homebuyers shouldn’t stir themselves into a frenzy looking at sex offender maps:

  • A minority of sex offenders commit subsequent offenses. According to the Huffington Post, “Contrary to popular belief, as a group, sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all the crime categories.” (See “Sex Offenders: Recidivism, Re-Entry Policy and Facts.”)
  • Not everyone who is charged with a registerable sex offense will end up on the sex offender registery. A good defense attorney will do everything possible to avoid an outcome that requires registration, a life-long duty that will limit the client’s ability to get jobs and housing long after any jail time has been served. Particularly when the prosecution’s case is weak, clients will enter into plea bargains to lesser, non-registerable offenses, like assault.
  • The most common sex offenders are the people you might least suspect. According to the organization Parents for Megan’s Law, “Most child sexual abuse, up to 90%, occurs with someone a child has an established and trusting relationship with.” Friends, babysitters, family members, coaches, and others are commonly identified in studies and statistics of child sexual abuse.

Not all of the above news is exactly comforting. But it points to a larger truth: We can’t completely isolate ourselves or our children from danger – not in the homebuying process, nor anywhere else. The best bet for parents worrying about their children’s personal safety is to teach those children what to watch out for and encourage them to talk to parents or other adults about any inappropriate behavior.