The total amount of building permits issued in the city of St. Louis reached an all time high today (in nominal dollars). Something that has been vexing me about the last few years as we’ve tracked the building permits is that it’s in spite of the high murder rate. The number of murders increased from 2013 to 2015 and has held at that higher level since, yet St. Louis has had some of the highest amounts of building permits issued over the same period. It doesn’t pass the smell test, violating common sense. Let’s take a look at how the building permits data relate to murders in St. Louis.
NextSTL – 2020 Building Permits Mapped
**Note** Please don’t misinterpret what I’m presenting here as an argument that reducing homicide and violent crime shouldn’t be the top priority for the city, the region, and the state.
As we’ve been reporting, building permits in the city have had a good run over the last few years. 2018 was the highest year this century when taking into account inflation. 2021 will be close to that. Three of the last four years have surpassed $1B. I’ve adjusted for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to account for inflation, which isn’t ideal as construction costs aren’t the same as what the CPI tracks, but better than nothing.
St. Louis city homicides over the last 21 years. For 2021 I extrapolated from the year-to-date November total to get 188 for the year. 2020 was the highest during the last 21 years, surely the mental health impact of the pandemic had something to do with the spike. 2003 was the fewest at 74. There’s a noticeable rise starting in 2014, and with the drop in 2021, we’ve returned to the tragic “new normal” average of the last few years at about 190.
So with the rise since 2014, how is it that we also had good years of investment reflected in the building permits data? Let’s see how they relate to each other by plotting the permits amount versus the murder total.
We see that the amount of investment as reflected in building permits in St. Louis isn’t explained by the number of murders in St. Louis. Maybe there’s a time lag. If I plot building permits versus murders two years earlier, the R^2 is even smaller. Most people would figure that the trendline would have a negative slope at the very least– more murders, less investment. The plot indicates that other things have had much more to do with investment levels in St. Louis than homicides. For instance the economic growth in the 2000s was likely a bigger driver of investment than the low number of murders in 2003. I don’t recall a prevailing perception that the city was safe then. In fact we were smeared with the “Most Dangerous City” moniker in 2006, a local peak in permit activity, along with Detroit right when the World Series between the two baseball teams commenced.
So there isn’t much there there for the argument that murders influence investment – At least for murder totals in the range we’ve seen over the last 21 years. We don’t know much about what happens above 200 and below 100 murders.
How low would the number of murders have to go to make a difference? Is it the trend that matters? Sustaining low numbers for how many years? Getting well down the “Most Dangerous” lists? Let’s say we made a lot of progress, and St. Louis had 60 murders in a year. That would be on par with Atlanta in 2019 (22nd highest murder rate in the US). But that’s still more than one a week, surely enough to hear about with enough frequency to continue perceiving the city as dangerous.
If we did achieve big decreases, would the goal posts of what’s considered safe move? For example Charlotte is supposedly safe and worth investing in, despite not having turnstiles on their light rail system somehow. If StL City and County had the same murder rate as Charlotte did in 2020, the total would be 166. The City and County are on pace for about 250 in 2021. So would a combined total of 150 mean we’re safe and result in big increases in investment?
Some food for thought. More in-depth analysis is warranted. There’s way more going on than comparing these two stats can tell us. The devastating effects of violent crime and murders on families and communities is undeniable and should be our top focus. Investment isn’t just buildings either. What and who is being invested in matters. And where. Not all parts of the city are equally invested in nor impacted by crime of course, not even close.