Since 9/11, Central Ohioans Want to Live in Less Dense Neighborhoods

Newswise — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed how central Ohioans viewed the kind of neighborhoods they want to live in, according to a series of new studies.

Homeowners of Franklin County (which includes Columbus) surveyed in November 2001 indicated they wanted houses in less dense neighborhoods, with fewer houses and more space, and a nearby park. All other factors " such as school quality, commuting time to work, neighborhood safety, housing price and others " no longer seemed important.

Just a few months before " prior to the terrorist attacks " a survey of Franklin County homeowners found that a whole range of factors, including neighborhood density, schools, commuting time and price, were significant to homeowners.

"After 9/11, nothing else but housing density and parks mattered to people when they considered moving," said Hazel Morrow-Jones, co-author of the study and associate professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.

"While such results may not be surprising for an eastern seaboard city or other likely target of terrorism, they are somewhat surprising for a mid-sized, Midwestern city."

A third survey done in spring 2004 suggests homeowners' neighborhood choices have moved back toward pre-9/11 levels, as the researchers expected. However the new normality seems to incorporate terrorism with crime when people say they want "safe" neighborhoods.

Morrow-Jones conducted the studies with Brian Roe, associate professor, and Elena Irwin, assistant professor, both in agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State.

Their findings were published in recent issues of the journals Housing Policy Debate and Applied Economics Letters and presented at meetings of the American Agricultural Economics Association and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

The study began in the summer of 2001 when the researchers undertook a survey to determine the neighborhood preferences of residents of Franklin County. The county, with a population of slightly more than 1 million people, includes the state capital of Columbus, which is the nation's 15th largest city and 33rd largest metropolitan area.

That survey included 1,257 homeowners. The participants were asked to suppose that they were moving and had narrowed their choice to two physically identical homes. They were then given profiles of the two potential neighborhoods, which differed in housing density, commuting time to work, school quality, neighborhood safety, average household income in the neighborhood, and actual price for the home.

The results showed people preferred neighborhoods that were less dense, had a park, had better schools, lower crime, and shorter commutes. Changing various characteristics " such as adding a nearby park " made it more likely that homeowners would choose living in a more dense neighborhood where there were more homes, built closer together.

The survey results had just been collected when the terrorist attacks occurred. "We were thinking that we had just collected obsolete data," Morrow-Jones said.

But then they applied for and received funding from the National Science Foundation to quickly repeat the survey, which they did in November 2001 to January 2002.

This second survey, which included 803 homeowners, was virtually the same, but included questions asking whether the terrorist attacks affected their homeownership plans, such as their likelihood of moving and where they would like to move.

One of the most surprising findings, Morrow-Jones said, was that one-quarter of the respondents expected a terrorist attack at some point in Franklin County. However, few respondents believed the 9/11 attacks changed their homeownership plans in any way.

Still, despite what the survey participants said, the results showed all the factors that mattered to homeowners just a few months before " except for housing density and nearby parks " no longer were significant.

"That's surprising given that people generally didn't think the terrorist attacks had much impact on their views of homeownership," Morrow-Jones said.

"But people are linking high-density neighborhoods to cities and cities are seen as targets. Lower housing densities are seen as the cure."

There was no difference between the pre- and post-9/11 surveys in the interest in downtown living, but those who expected an attack in the county were much less interested in living downtown.

The survey was repeated a third time in Franklin County in spring 2004. Surprisingly, an even higher percentage of respondents " 30 percent " now believed a terrorist attack is likely in the county. Still, their housing preferences moved somewhat closer to what they were before the 9/11 attacks.

Compared to the respondents in the second survey, more people in this third survey thought their own actions could protect their family from a terrorist attack " but fewer people thought the government could protect them.

In addition, more people said they planned to move to a rural area or another city than immediately after 9/11, but the percentages were still quite small (under 5 percent).

On average people still preferred lower density neighborhoods,, but characteristics such as school quality became somewhat more important.

But what was most striking was the much greater importance put on neighborhood safety in this third survey, Morrow-Jones said.

"What seems to have happened is that neighborhood safety has been redefined," she said. "It used to be that if you said neighborhood safety, everyone thought crime. Now I think they are thinking more broadly of crime and terrorism. Fear of terrorism is so endemic in society that it is built into people's responses."

This third survey suggests that, if there aren't any additional terrorist attacks, people's home desires will continue to move toward pre-9/11 levels, she said. "But it may be a new kind of normal in which neighborhood safety means a broader array of things than it did in the past."

The researchers plan to repeat the study in Dayton, Ohio, a smaller city, but one that has a large military presence " the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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