Photo: Getty Images; Realtor.com
Columbine. Newtown. Parkland. Las Vegas. El Paso. Each of these places has become indelibly linked to an ongoing American tragedy: mass shootings.
A macabre narrative has begun to emerge. Another deadly shooting erupts somewhere in the U.S. The national spotlight shines on yet another city, town, or neighborhood grappling with the unthinkable horrors that just took place. Eventually, attentions turn elsewhere. But what happens then to these devastated communities?
These places can become branded by the horrific acts of violence that took place there. And though measures are taken to ensure another mass shooting never occurs in the same area, that stigmatization often lingers.
The terror and loss of lives can bring towns and city neighborhoods together, strengthening ties between neighbors. Yet the atrocities can also spur some to leave their homes and painful memories behind and discourage newcomers from moving in. That can have detrimental effects on the local real estate markets, resulting in fewer home sales and lower prices in some instances.
“The shock of a mass shooting on a community shakes people in ways few other things can,” says Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL. She was one of 17 slaughtered in February 2018 at the school. “The [Parkland] community went through real upheaval.”
Studies show that deadly mass shootings at schools can bring down home prices in affected districts roughly 6% to 8% in the year following the tragedy. Families may not want to move into an area where their children will attend a school still making sense of such a terrible loss. It may also explain why there can be fewer home sales in the years immediately following the catastrophes.
“These types of events affect communities for decades,” says Sarah Lowe, a social and behavioral sciences professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “When the name of a community becomes synonymous with a tragedy, there’s going to be some sort of stigma or prejudgment.”
However, each tragedy plays out differently. Just this weekend four people were killed and five more were injured in a shooting at a bar in Kansas City, KS. And the kind of incident and where it happens can greatly affect the long-term consequences.
Mass shootings in bigger, tourist-magnet cities, including the ones that occurred at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL—the two deadliest in U.S. history—haven’t seemed to make much of a dent in their respective housing markets. That may be because it’s easier for a small town or suburb to become identified with a tragedy than a city that’s already built a reputation nationally. Cities are also employment, entertainment, and cultural hubs—and they remain so, even if an atrocity was committed there.
Meanwhile, the massacre of young children in their classrooms may be more untenable to prospective home buyers appalled by the crime. This could have a greater impact on local housing markets than a shooting in a workplace, nightclub, or shopping center.
“Killing children has a profound impact on people that never goes away,” says Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist and psychology professor at Loyola, University of Chicago. “It puts a permanent stamp on that community.”
After the tragedy: How communities cope with mass shootings
David Colbath was worshipping at the First Baptist Church in rural Sutherland Springs, TX, when the shots rang out on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. In the 11 minutes of terror that followed, about 700 rounds were fired. Twenty-six of Colbath’s fellow churchgoers were murdered, and 20 more were injured.
Colbath was shot eight times: The killer stood on top of his back to deliver the last shot, just 3 inches under Colbath’s neck. Colbath, who was conscious at the time, lost 4.5 pints of blood and had to relearn how to walk and use his nerve-damaged hands. But he’s grateful to be alive when so many of his congregation were not as fortunate.
Despite the carnage he lived through, Colbath has no plans to move to another community or another church. Residents of Sutherland Springs, a town outside of San Antonio that’s so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, have rallied together in the wake of the devastation.
“The community is very close-knit,” says Colbath, now 57. “We have to look forward, and we have to look up.”
After a mass shooting, it’s common for some residents to double-down on their desire to stay in their communities. Sometimes the crimes don’t create exoduses—instead they foster new ties and closeness between neighbors.
Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, feels similarly. He was out of town during the bloodshed, which claimed the life of his youngest daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, 14. Since the murders, more than double the number of worshippers attend services some Sundays.
“This is still my home,” says Pomeroy, who is now running for a seat in the Texas state Senate. “People are still hurting, and there are people who are still struggling to get through their grief. But we’re healing together, we’re laughing together, we’re growing together.”
Similar community scenarios played out in Newtown, CT, after 20 young children and six teachers were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School; in Parkland, FL, after the high school shooting; and in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh that is home to the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 of the Jewish congregants were gunned down in 2018.
Somehow, the heinous crime drew people together.
“Everyone’s supportive of each other, more so than ever before,” says real estate agent Ellen Livingston, a longtime member of the Tree of Life synagogue.
She wasn’t there when the shooting occurred, but remembers clearly where seven of the victims she knew would sit. People here “have come together,” Livingston says.
Mass shootings can have far-reaching effects on housing markets
There has been little wide-based research into the long-term impact of mass shootings on real estate values. But there have been a few studies that focus on the aftereffects of school shootings on nearby communities.
One research paper found that home prices in affected school districts fell 7.8% in the year immediately following the catastrophe. That averaged out to about a $15,051 loss, and it was just the beginning. The effects lingered for at least five years.
The number of home sales were affected, too. Two years after the tragedy they fell an average of 8.3%. Three years later they were down a total of 13.9%.
That’s likely because the massacres are likely to dissuade newcomers without previous ties to a place from moving in. They may be spooked by the stigma or worry about telling friends where their children are going to school. Or they may worry that the quality of the institution has suffered as teachers and parishioners struggle to cope with the massacre.
“After the shooting, you may not feel comfortable putting your kid” in the school district where the crime occurred, says Juan Munoz, one of the authors of the study and a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The study looked at 15 school shootings, not all deadly and with at least three victims, from 1998 to 2014. It was based on CoreLogic sales data and did not include college shootings.
Another report zeroed in on the aftershocks of the tragedy widely considered ground zero for the modern plague of school shootings: the Columbine High School shooting in the upscale Denver suburb of Littleton, CO, which claimed 13 lives in 1999. Home prices dropped 5.7% within the Columbine High School boundary in the year following the horrors, according to a study in the Southern Economic Journal. That was an average loss of $24,000 per home.
However, the real estate market wasn’t penalized for the crime over the long term, says economics professor and study author Patrick Gourley at the University of New Haven. He looked at more than 200,000 property records of single-family home sales in Jefferson County, where the shooting took place, from 1980 to 2013, and found that home prices recovered for the most part five to 10 years after the tragedy, showing only minor, lingering effects.
“People usually want to avoid death and don’t want to think about it,” says Gourley.
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for how different housing markets will react
Despite the findings of such studies, the real estate effect varies greatly depending on the individual shooting. And the numbers sometimes defy easy analysis.
Look at one of the most heart-wrenching losses of life, the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT. A year after the shocking events of Dec. 14, 2012, the number of home sales in the town ticked up 14.4%, according to data provided by the Newtown Board of Realtors.
That seemed to indicate that many residents were fleeing in the wake of the tragedy. But it could also be partly due to home sales picking up nationally, as the economy was emerging from the financial crisis.
Yet unlike much of the rest of the country, Newtown prices fell from a median sales price of $382,125 in 2012. They dropped 5.5% the first year, 5.8% in the second, and 4.8% in the third. To put that into perspective, nationally sales prices rose 8.1% from 2012 to 2013, 9.2% from 2012 to 2014, and 15.5% from 2012 to 2015.
Many other tragedies are too recent to look at multiyear home price and sales comparisons. But, anecdotally, the Tree of Life shooting hasn’t hampered real estate sales in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh—at least not yet, says Livingston, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices.
The multicultural neighborhood is home to many of the city’s Jewish residents, and its century-old Victorian or two-story, brick houses remain in demand thanks to the neighborhood’s central location and proximity to Carnegie Mellon and local hospitals.
“The [home] values have not gone down,” says Livingston. “They’ve continued to go up.”
The homes of shooters, sites of the massacres are the most stigmatized
The sites of the mass murders and homes of the shooters themselves are likely to have the hardest time selling and see the biggest price cuts, says Randall Bell, CEO of Landmark Research Group, which analyzes real estate after cataclysmic events.
“Crime scene properties, or properties associated with crime scenes, typically sell at a discount between 10% and 25%,” says Bell. He consulted on the World Trade Center and Heaven’s Gate mass suicide site—as well as Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza‘s house. Lanza murdered his mother in their Newtown, CT, home before going on his killing spree, which culminated in his suicide.
The bank that owned the Lanza house ultimately agreed to tear it down as “it was better for the community,” Bell says.
But plenty more of the homes remain standing, including those of the Columbine shooters. The prices on such homes are often slashed, opportunistic buyers snap them up, and new families move in.
Case in point: the Reno home of gunman Stephen Paddock, who carried out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, which claimed 58 concertgoers on Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. His two-bedroom, two-bathroom home was sold at a roughly 30% discount, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Proceeds were earmarked for the families of Paddock’s victims.
Why some residents choose to go
While the majority of people stay put after a tragedy, survivors or those who lost loved ones may find it too painful to drive past familiar places or walk by now-empty bedrooms.
Guttenberg, one of the grieving parents in Parkland, plans to move.
“Staying here is pain. This is where my daughter died,” says Guttenberg, whose teenage son survived the massacre. “I suspect others will in the next year or two. There’s definitely a feeling among the 17 [families of the victims that] we need a change of scenery.”
Arthur Hurd sold the brick bungalow in Charleston he had shared with his wife, librarian Cynthia Hurd, after she was one of the nine black parishioners murdered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in 2015, according to the Post and Courier. The memories of her hurt too much.
Others who lost loved ones moved to escape harassment from conspiracy theorists convinced these families are crisis actors and the shootings were a hoax.
Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner relocated at least seven times since their 6-year-old son, Noah Pozner, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting nearly nine years ago. Each time they did, their stalkers posted their new address online. As of 2018, they were living hundreds of miles away in a high-security community, according to the New York Times.
In Guttenberg’s case, the only reason he and his wife haven’t left yet is not knowing where to go next.
“We want to go out in a community where everyone doesn’t know our name,” says Guttenberg. The former business owner and real estate agent has since become a full-time activist fighting for gun control and keeping his daughter’s memory alive.
“For those who are most closely affected, [Parkland] will never be the same,” he says.