Over the past several decades, home owners in Columbia, South Carolina, have been moving to the suburbs. The remaining population, largely comprised of renters, lacked the same degree of financial and emotional investment in its neighborhoods. Without the stabilizing influence of homeowners on city neighborhoods, crime rates increased and housing deteriorated.
For years, the City of Columbia's Community Development Department had administered various programs promoting home ownership. However, in some areas high crime rates kept prospective owners away. The Community Development Department then devised the Police Homeowners Loan Program, which creatively addresses issues of public safety and neighborhood revitalization. To encourage police officers to live in the city neighborhoods they patrol, the program offers low-interest, 20-year mortgage loans with no down payment to buy and rehabilitate substandard houses in inner-city neighborhoods. Police officers who live in the City also receive a $500 end-of-year bonus and become eligible for promotion to the rank of captain or above.
The first Police Homeowners loan was approved in 1991, and by mid-1993 nine officers, many with young families, had purchased inner-city homes, and reported that without the chance to acquire affordable housing they would not have moved into low-income neighborhoods. Community relations have improved; the newly-settled police homeowners have a better understanding of the character of the neighborhoods they patrol, and the residents have gotten to know the officers as neighbors, friends, or role models.
The Police Homeowner Loan Program is part of the City's community-based policing initiative, which resulted in a 15 percent decrease in crime in 1992. An even greater decrease was reported in the Eau Claire neighborhood, where most of the officers have settled. Residents report feeling safer and more confident that neighborhood conditions will improve.
Given the character of Columbia neighborhoods--defined areas with between 500 to 2,000 residents--rehabilitating a single house on a block and adding a police offer has greater impact than it would in more diffuse and populous cities. City officials report that, with rehabilitation and homeownership, neighborhoods have been physically revitalized; nearby houses have proven more marketable and the general appearance of the surrounding area has improved.
Due to the success of the Police Homeowners Loan Program, people outside the targeted areas are requesting that the City recruit police officers to purchase deteriorated houses in their neighborhoods. The program has also been expanded to include other City employees and it has inspired replication in other U.S. cities.