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Distressed Property Strategy (Zombie Houses)

Distressed Property Strategy (Zombie Houses)

Portland Police Bureau

Synopsis: A collaborative, systematic approach to addressing distressed properties produced a reduction in a number of call types in the area surrounding these properties.


Problematic Behavior Or Activity

Neighborhoods are suffering diminished livability due to residential and commercial properties that become vacant through foreclosure, probate, and abandonment.

Impact On The Community

These properties attract transient populations that use them for shelter and as a location where they engage in illicit drug activity and other criminal conduct that includes sex crimes, theft, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and other activities that stress neighborhoods and undermine community confidence. In many cases these properties become dumping grounds for trash, human waste, and other forms of rubbish. They attract vermin and other infestations that infiltrate neighboring properties. As a result, community members have ongoing concern that their neighborhood will fall into blighted condition (ORS. 457.010) due to Dangerous and Derelict Structures (City Code 29.40) and the criminal activity frequently associated with such properties.


Program Description

The East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team officers take action on distressed properties when they become the subject of neighborhood livability complaints. They do not typically seek out locations, but will take reasonable steps if they become aware of a property before it becomes a neighborhood problem. The goal is to make a timely, effective response to patrol and neighbors’ complaints associated with distressed dangerous properties.

The Distressed Property Strategy identifies the many issues facing the distressed property and engages the expertise of outside agencies to address these issues.

Most distressed properties involve some or all of the following:

  • illegal occupants;
  • structural damage and dilapidation;
  • trash, debris, and abandoned, soiled property strewn inside and outside the main structure and sheds;
  • people using the structure as a base for criminal conduct;
  • fire hazard; and/or
  • general safety and health concerns, including vector control and discarded syringes.

Eradicating these problems requires a team that communicates and works together to address each unique problem. Team members are cross-trained and understand the scope and legal authority of other members. The team members may include law enforcement, building inspectors, code enforcement personnel, crime prevention specialists, emergency communications supervisors, prosecuting attorneys, aging services staff, and city attorneys.

The East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team has established strategic alliances with numerous partners, including community members, the Bureau of Development Services, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Multnomah County Health Department, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, Portland General Electric, the Portland Water Bureau, and Multnomah County Corrections.

The goal of the strategy is to have a systematic approach to addressing the problem that meets all of the legal requirements associated with dealing with private property, while introducing all of the necessary stakeholders to the problem in an organized manner. The team meets regularly to solve problems and organize, plan, and communicate. The police identify the problem and conduct initial assessment and documentation. The documentation is provided to the appropriate partners, who begin their portion of the investigation. Building inspectors identify structural violations cited in the police documentation and write administrative warrants for everything up to and including demolition. Code enforcement personnel fine the owners and serve administrative warrants to make the property safe. Each member applies his or her trade to resolve the problem. The first and most important step is locating, documenting, and securing the location. The tactical steps taken by team members are listed in this document: east-Precinct-Distressed-Property-Strategy-for-knowledge-base.pdf

Denying access to the property is 90 percent of the crime prevention strategy. The long-term solution is getting somebody to take responsibility for the property. Building and code enforcement personnel continue contacting the owner (usually a bank) and notifying them of liens and issuing fines for compliance failures. When the owners are not identifiable or not located, the fines and work orders are placed as liens to be recovered upon sale of the property. Eventually the properties are sold to a responsible owner, the liens are paid, and the property is occupied.

East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team officers also maintain a database of houses that are the subject of intervention by team members and track the effectiveness of their tactics in bringing about positive change in the neighborhood.

Based On Research

Team officers use best practices and governance provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), recommended strategies presented by the United States Conference of Mayors, Oregon statutes, Portland municipal codes, Portland Police Bureau policy, and specialized knowledge obtained through the officers’ experience and training.


This activity is funded out of existing budgets, employing the resources listed. No special grants are used.


Program Impact

The number-one complaint that comes to the Neighborhood Response Team is the disorder associated with distressed properties. The team’s initial response is locating, documenting, and securing the locations. Citizens have responded in an extremely positive manner, including applause. The Portland Police Bureau conducted a CompStat review of several distressed properties throughout the precinct. These properties each had at least two years of vacancy and related crime data. The following impacts within a 500-foot radius of properties were identified:

  • 28% reduction in Part 1 and Part 2 crimes
  • 42% reduction in cold burglary calls
  • 23% reduction in cold theft calls
  • 15% reduction in suspicious person calls
  • 45% reduction in cold vandalism calls
  • 29% reduction in cold stolen vehicle calls
  • 50% reduction in vice calls

Critical Success Factors

It is critical to have an explicit programmatic approach to these problems. When documenting the locations in police reports, an officer should use a boilerplate model that identifies the legal authority and available research about the identified problem. See the Police Officer Report Templates. Having a process for code inspection and building inspection is also needed to enable a long-term outcome. Finally, when securing the buildings the team recommends a full security board-up that includes the following:

  • Board all windows and doors on the inside of the house, except one entry point.
  • Utilize security screws.
  • Board on all levels, including basement and upstairs.
  • Post “No trespassing” signs (after trespass agreement is secured).
  • Post contact information in case someone must contact the police who initiated the secured board-up.
  • Make sure neighbors are notified that the property is secured and that they should call police if somebody tries to break in.
  • Manage the location through cooperation of neighbors, police, and code enforcement. From time to time the location may need to be resecured or made safe.
  • Maintain a database of locations in case of any inquiries.

Lessons Learned

When I designed the program, I interviewed and drew from the team members’ experience dealing with properties, neighbors, and partners, Then I sought advice from civil attorneys and prosecutors at the city level, to see if they had any concerns about the process. The final step was researching the problem on a national level and extracting best practices from work conducted by other organizations. Finally, the police team must be a reliable partner, so that they can expect the other partners to be reliable too.

Additional Documents