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Drug Dealing in Privately Owned Apartment Complexes

Guide No.4 (2001)

by Rana Sampson

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The Problem of Drug Dealing in Privately Owned Apartment Complexes

If you have an apartment complex in your community where drug dealing is occurring, you may have found that simply making arrests has not closed the drug market. What else could be done? Why is this problem occurring? What conditions facilitate the drug market's operations, and what remedies will work best?

This guidebook addresses these issues. It describes the types of drug markets found in apartment complexes and provides questions to ask when analyzing those markets. It suggests ways to encourage property owners to take more responsibility for problems. Finally, it summarizes the full range of measures you can use to address drug markets in apartment complexes.

Problem Description

Drug markets in privately owned apartment complexes are most often found in low-income areas where property owners sometimes retreat (out of fear or financial considerations) from investing in repairs and otherwise practicing effective management.1 In these markets, users and dealers buy and sell a wide range of illicit drugs, predominantly cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The markets are often extremely profitable for the dealer, and the income is nontaxable.

A private security firm hired by a Cincinnati housing agency calculated the yearly income of one apartment-complex drug market. Surveillance of the market showed as many as 26 transactions an hour during peak sales times (rush hour and lunchtime), less other times. With an average of $15 per transaction, estimated gross revenues exceeded $2 million dollars annually. 

Drug dealing in apartment complexes can attract other nuisance behavior that diminishes the residents' quality of life, such as loitering; littering (including drug paraphernalia and used condoms); trespassing; prostitution (including illegal sexual activity on the property, in nearby yards, in alleys, or in driveways);§ drug use; abandoned vehicles; speeding vehicles; parking problems; unwanted additional foot, car and bicycle traffic in residential neighborhoods; public drinking; public urination; gang formation; graffiti (establishing turf ownership of a drug market); assaults; auto theft; auto breakins; residential and commercial burglaries; possession of and trafficking in stolen property; weapons violations (including gun possession and gun trafficking); robberies; drive-by shootings; or other violent crime (including homicide). This helps explain why successfully tackling a drug market can bring about substantial decreases in crime in the surrounding area.

§ In England, a study done on three drug markets where prostitution occurred found that "sex markets can play a significant part in the development of drug markets (and vice versa)" (May, Edmunds and Hough 1999 [Full text] [Briefing Notes]). The researchers noted that "professionals estimated that between two-thirds and threequarters of street workers might be drug-dependent," and found that many of the prostitutes spent much of their daily earnings on drugs. Thus, the influx of money from a nearby prostitution market can bolster a drug market, providing a steady source of customers. These dual markets are more difficult to unravel and require additional analysis of how one fuels the other.

Related Problems

The problem of drug dealing in privately owned apartment complexes exhibits some similarities to related problems listed below, though each requires its own analysis and response. These related problems are not addressed in this guide:

§§ While some of the same principles involved in drug markets apply to street and hotel prostitution problems, these problems demand their own solutions.

Factors Contributing to Drug Dealing in Privately Owned Apartment Complexes

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

What We Know About Drug Dealing in Privately Owned Apartment Complexes

Apartment complexes can harbor two main types of drug markets—open and closed. In open markets, dealers sell to all potential customers, screening out only those suspected of being police or some other threat. In closed markets, dealers sell only to people they know or to those vouched for by other buyers.2

In choosing between two evils, closed markets pose less threat to a community than open markets. Open markets in apartment complexes are much more susceptible to drive-by shootings, customers who care little about the property, and customers who use drugs on the property. In comparison, closed-market dealers are generally averse to attracting attention to their operation, so they often keep their customers' behavior in line.

Certain conditions make privately owned apartment complexes in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods susceptible to open-market drug dealing. These conditions are outlined below.

Tenants and nearby residents with drug histories. Chronic users often live near their markets so they can readily buy drugs. This helps sustain the market. Also, drug markets in low-income neighborhoods can provide a source of part-or full-time employment, and apartment complexes can be ripe recruiting grounds due to a high population of poorly paid, underemployed or unemployed tenants.

Easy access. Open drug markets in apartment complexes typically operate near main streets. Other factors that appear to facilitate open markets are ease of parking (or stopping) for buyers, and access to apartment complex grounds.

Absentee owners and/or inadequate or untrained property managers.§ Property owners often do not live in their apartment complexes, and in the case of smaller complexes and those encumbered by debt, they may not employ on-site managers, reducing the risk that visitors will be stopped, questioned or prevented from entering the property. In large apartment complexes, tenants, police and property managers do not always know who belongs at the complex and who does not. This makes it easy for people to come and go unquestioned, and for drug traffic to appear as just another part of the routine activity.§§

§ For some apartment complexes, the building superintendent is the property manager, responsible for tenant selection and order maintenance, among myriad other duties.

§§ For a fuller discussion of the importance of "place" managers, such as property owners, property managers and apartment superintendents, and their impact on crime, see Felson (1995) [Abstract only]and Eck and Weisburd (1995)[Full text]. For research indicating a link between poor property management practices and crime, see Eck and Wartell (1998); Asbury (1988); Green Mazzerolle, Kadleck and Roehl (1998); and Clarke and Bichler-Robertson (1998).

Limited natural surveillance of property. Buyers are often safeguarded from police surveillance because they purchase drugs on private property, sometimes behind the security of fences or shrubs, or inside an apartment.

What We Know About Open Drug Markets

Description. Open drug markets are likely to be outdoors and, by their very nature, less secure than closed markets. Dealers usually sell small amounts of drugs to each buyer, and are highly vulnerable to market disruption and intervention approaches. Open-market dealers may specialize in one drug, or offer a variety of drugs. During the 1980s and early 1990s, in many cities, open markets proliferated on street corners and in publicly and privately owned apartment complexes.

Some of these still exist, but many are now hybrid, containing elements of both open and closed markets. The hybrid market remains open to almost all customers, and to reduce risk, dealers may use security designed to screen potential customers. Security may include countersurveillance, electronic detection devices, prescreening interviews, frisk searches, and use of pager sales to known customers. In most ways, though, hybrid markets remain open.

Location. Open markets with stranger-to-stranger sales tend to operate close to where people naturally congregate, so that customer traffic is maximized and activities of law-abiding community members mask the drug dealing. The markets are often near major streets or other busy places, such as shopping centers, office buildings, recreation areas, or schools. Apartment complexes, especially those close to main streets, are places of natural congregation, yet offer some degree of security, often having multiple entrances and exits.

This open drug market, in the upper left corner of the photo, sits in front of an apartment complex and across from a nude entertainment club. It is located on a main street in an economically depressed area, within a few blocks from a freeway. Credit: Rana Sampson

This open drug market in a small apartment complex is one block off a main street with both street and alley access easing entry and escape. While most open markets use street dealers as their billboard, others, like this one, are more brazen. Credit: Rana Sampson

Dealer security. Operating off the public street on apartment complex grounds gives dealers an advantage: they can see if police are coming, and can escape into the security of a specific apartment where officers cannot enter without a warrant or a constitutionally recognized exception.

Property management. Open markets can operate on apartment complex grounds only if there is no meaningful intervention by the owner or property manager.3

Advertisement. Open markets must trade some measure of security to achieve a high number of sales. Dealers advertise by picking a location that acts as a "billboard." In other words, the location itself is often one of the only means of advertisement open to dealers, besides word of mouth. The location must be visible enough to gain customers, but discreet enough to discourage police intervention.

Operations. Open markets may be 24-hour operations or may operate only around busy times such as rush hour and evenings. Some full-time operations employ numerous workers (sometimes underage) who do a variety of tasks to facilitate sales. These include dealing, steering potential buyers to the market, alerting dealers to police, and running special orders to favored customers.

Buyers. Open-air markets are attractive to buyers who look to obtain their drugs in the shortest amount of time. These might include hard-core users and those preferring the safety of drive-through markets. When chronic users are the bulk of a drug market, displacement, rather than market elimination, will probably follow police intervention, since chronic users are the most difficult to dissuade.

Vulnerabilities. Open markets are vulnerable to police undercover and informant operations, alert and active property management, and community intervention (such as identifying where dealers hide stash); all these raise dealers' risk level. Traffic management techniques such as altering the direction of the street, creating a cul-de-sacs or limiting the number of escape routes raise buyers' risk level.

What We Know About Closed Drug Markets

Description. Closed drug markets are more likely to be indoors, with dealers' supplying only friends and acquaintances. The dealers can sell larger quantities of drugs to individual buyers than in open markets because they can easily store the necessary equipment, such as scales and packaging supplies, inside an apartment. Closed-market dealers may specialize in one drug, or offer a variety.§

§ In a study of a particularly drug-ridden area of San Diego in the early 1990s, researchers found that crack and cocaine markets were more likely to be open markets and methamphetamine markets more likely to be closed markets (Eck 1998a [Abstract only]). However, when a drug becomes more fashionable, one may find that open markets pop up to accommodate increased customer demand. In San Diego, although methamphetamine sales are usually found in closed indoor markets, reports of open-market sales are increasing.

Location. Since dealers in closed markets rely on word of mouth, they do not need to locate in busy or well-trafficked areas. This means that tactics such as rerouting traffic or increasing security at the apartment complex will have less of an impact than on an open market.

Dealer security. In closed markets, dealers prefer secure locations to a high volume of individual customers, because high customer volume may raise the suspicions of neighbors and police. Also, these markets are vulnerable to robbers who know that dealers cannot rely on police to intercede. Some dealers fortify their apartment doors, install multiple locks and refuse entry to apartment handymen, to increase security.

Property management. In only a small percentage of cases are owners in cahoots with dealers, suggesting that initially, officers should seek to work with owners to address the problem. Managers are more susceptible than property owners, because they have less at stake. Dealers may offer managers special favors or kickbacks to "turn a blind eye." Officers might try to work with the manager first; if there are indications that the manager is involved, officers might seek to work solely with the owner.

Advertisement. Dealers in closed markets advertise by word of mouth only. Police intervention in closed markets requires highly specific knowledge of buyers, the seller and/or the product to pass the initial scrutiny to enter. Police can often gain this information from informants or nearby residents.

Operations. Closed markets require fewer employees because the volume of buyers is smaller and the dealer wants to avoid open advertisement of the market. Some closed markets in apartment complexes operate only in evening hours, perhaps indicating the dealer is legally employed during the day or is simply minimizing risk by limiting hours.

This graphic depicts an arterial street in an economically depressed area with high risk dealing areas denoted by the boxes and dots. Credit: John Eck

Buyers. Closed markets attract buyers who want to lessen their risk of getting caught by police and those who want the certainty of purchasing the same or similar quality product that the closed market dealer sells. These buyers have gained the confidence of a closed market dealer perhaps because of friendship, reliability or behavior (not exposing the dealer to police or other intervention).

Vulnerabilities. Certain practices may increase the vulnerability of closed markets—frequent property owner inspections of each apartment, strict lease conditions, explicit house rules, and immediate follow-through on eviction if drug dealing is established.

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