The Research and Reality of High-Rise Security

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Two subjects are sure to get any HOA meeting roiling — money and security.  If there’s a special assessment or dues increase, the next HOA meeting will be attended as if Elvis would be in the building. Similarly, security topics will set the assembled on high-murmur even long after the meeting is done.

Cash and fear … all that’s missing is a little sex.

How secure are high-rises from crime?

People assume high-rises are inherently safer simply because you’re off the ground.  They’re assumed to literally be “above it all.”  In fact, an Australian study of high-rise safety, published in 2013 for their Criminology Research Advisory Council, showed that residents believe they’re not only safer in a high-rise, but that they’re safer the further off the ground they are.  Even within the same building, residents on the 20th floor believe they’re safer than those on 10.  It’s as though they forget criminals use elevators too.

This is understandable.  When one thinks of burglary, often a masked thief in the guise of McDonalds’ Hamburglar is envisioned climbing through a window.  Unlike a single-family home, high-rise windows are pretty secure, unless Spiderman changes sides.

McDonalds Hamburglar isn't a real burglar.
McDonalds Hamburglar isn’t a real burglar.

However, the study showed that regardless of the type of crime, height actually made no difference in the incidence of crime within a high-rise.  What did make a difference was the makeup of the residents.

The Australian study covered 290 multi-story buildings, and 75 were over 15 stories.  They describe resident populations as long-term, short-term, and mixed tenure.  Long-term tenure describes condominium and apartment properties where residents lived for multiple years and whose populations were fairly stable.  Short-term tenancies would be hotels and vacation apartments. And mixed would be, well, a mix of the two.

The highest crime rates were measured in mixed-tenure buildings … the lowest in long-term tenured.

It’s worth noting that in Dallas we have residential components at the Ritz, ZaZa and W hotels.  However, these would not be considered “mixed” as the hotel and residential operations are physically separate.

Why?

The researchers measured what they termed “place management” and “guardianship” as being as important as physical security measures.  Place management is about onsite staff and the condition of the building.  Does the building look maintained?  Does staff take an active interest in knowing residents and their guests? Are staff seen on the property?  Guardianship revolves around owners being visible and vigilant.  Are owners visible on balconies, in lobbies and other public areas? Are residents vigilant about reporting unknown people?

Understanding place management and guardianship, it begins to make sense why long-term tenancy buildings would be safer. There isn’t a parade of new and unknown people. Residents are more likely to report strange people and behavior.  Similarly, short-term tenancy buildings like hotels operate under the expectation by staff and guests that everyone is a stranger and so they act accordingly.  Mixed-use tenancy buildings, where no one is sure who’s supposed to be there and who’s not, leads to complacency on the part of staff and residents who assume strangers are short-term tenants.

This research also offers another reason for multi-family dwellings to be wary of accepting services like Airbnb.  Their operation changes long-term tenancy complexes into mixed-tenancy. This impacts overall security as strangers become commonplace and residents numb. In fact, when the Australian study interviewed residents about their perceptions on their building’s security, mixed-tenancy dwellers were the, “most vocal in discussing the challenges of security and safety.”

Security Cameras 2

Opportunity and physical security

Criminals seek the quickest and easiest method with the least risk.  High-rises negate this. Most high-rises have extensive video surveillance setup around and within their buildings. There are guard desks for visitors to check in and out. There are controlled-access doors requiring a key (less secure) or electronic fobs (more secure because they can be remotely deactivated) to gain entry. Many high-rises also have secure elevators requiring fobs or codes to take residents and visitors to specific floors.

And even then, assuming a spry criminal evaded all that and managed to get to a residential floor, what unit would they select? Casing a joint 20 stories off the ground from the street isn’t easy.  Lights-on or lights-off … that’s about it. They’d have no way to know what would be pilferable … because, remember, they’d have to get back out of the high-rise, so the 70-inch TV is pretty secure.

Another report out of Seattle noted that from 2008 to 2015 just 7 percent of Seattle-area crime took place in the urban core.  The ultimate reason was vibrancy.  More eyes watching, both physical and electronic, made crime more risky.  The vast majority of Seattle’s residential high-rises are in the urban core.

It’s also worth noting that criminologists report the average burglary takes 12 minutes.  Navigating a high-rise negates the need for speed.

The criminal you know

In addition to looking at the scant research available on residential high-rise crime rates and security, I looked at the actual crime being reported in Dallas.  I looked at two years of data for both Turtle Creek and Preston Center high-rises. Of the 200-ish records found, some 51 involved incidents occurring within a high-rise’s boundaries.  The remaining records included office buildings, retail shoplifting along with vehicle accidents and traffic stops near a building. Eerily, there were more than a few deaths by natural causes. Some were duplicate records where each victim made a separate complaint for the same incident.

Of the 51 remaining, 27 involved vehicle-related theft, vandalism, and break-ins on-property or in parking garages.  Remember, criminals seek ease and little risk.  A parked car is pretty low-risk. It’s worth noting that not all vehicle-related crimes were committed by unknown criminals.

That leaves just 24 incidents across all those buildings. Five of the remaining were for incidents originating outside the complex like harassing phone calls, identity theft, and unauthorized credit card use.  Nine were various shades of burglary and theft by known persons. Similarly, there were three reports of what appear to be domestic violence by a known person.

In two years, there were just two incidents reported that might have been committed by someone unknown. One was listed as a “burglary” with little other detail. It might have been by a known person because neither “unknown” nor “forced entry” were included in the description. Another involved theft of contractor tools. It’s unlikely someone wandered in off the street to steal a hammer.  The most likely thief was either another tradesman, building staff, or least likely, a neighbor.

There wasn’t a single case of a marauding band of thieves “sticking-up” a high-rise.  This backs up the Australian study.  All the buildings I looked at require long-term tenancy and their crime rates are exceedingly low.  Violent crime committed by a stranger was non-existent.

Also of note was the incidence within each building.  Broadly speaking, the larger the building, the more residents, the more incident reports … makes perfect sense.  This means that in Dallas, buildings with younger or older populations are not more or less susceptible.

Security video surveillance

Measures you can take

As residents, you should understand the physical barriers to entry that your building employs.  Plenty of cameras in well-lit areas inside and out with a focus on parking areas in and around a building.  Secure garage entry and exit. Fobs and electronic tokens versus keys for building and elevator entry.

Guards should be visible, but their location is largely irrelevant.  For example, I can think of just five buildings that have a check-in desk between sets of controlled doors.  The rest allow visitors to completely enter the lobby before going to an elevator.  Looking at the crime statistics, there is no added security to either configuration.  Visibility is the key.  Similarly, having badged, quasi-police “Security” versus “Guards” or doormen is also a useless distinction.  In fact I’ve found only two buildings in Dallas that pay the extra tax for “Security” officers and it’s a waste of HOA money.

Residents should also understand place management and guardianship of the property.  Finally, having your building evaluated by a security consultant every 5-10 years might be useful, especially if your high-rise was build a while ago. Technology changes.

End of the day

High-rises are more secure than structures closer to the ground. But their security has little to do with their height and everything to do with being an unattractive target for crime.  Physical security, place management and guardianship all minimize a building’s attractiveness to unknown criminals.

In long-term tenancy buildings, the most likely crook is the one with keys or who signed in at the security desk.

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a CandysDirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016, my writing was recognized with Bronze and Silver awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is CandysDirt.com's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on SecondShelters.com. An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Gmit says

    TV drama and “news” has ruined us all, the odds of a random crime are very, very low. Thanks for pointing out the “known to us” criminal, wife killing husband is way more a risk than just random murder or death by terrorism.

    Every time I see a high speed chase, I wonder, what drugs they were either on, off, or trying to come off.

  2. John M says

    “For example, I can think of just five buildings that have a check-in desk between sets of controlled doors. The rest allow visitors to completely enter the lobby before going to an elevator.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, are you saying that you shouldn’t be able to enter the lobby before the check in desk, like a check in vestibule before the lobby like the Wyndemere? At La Tour there is generally easy access to the lobby but the lobby is really just that, a lobby, you have to be buzzed in to get to elevator bank. Same with the service entrance, you are buzzed in to the service desk but you need a fob or a code to get into an elevator, stairwell or even the gym. I guess you could steal a plant or something from the clubroom.

    • Jon Anderson says

      I’m saying that based on the crime data, it doesn’t matter where the guard’s desk is located on the ground floor. There is no correlation to crimes committed when guards are placed before a secure door or after because unknown, random criminals are not forcing their way into high-rises, period. The point is that there are guards/doormen visible and on the ball.
      .
      (Shhh, all the botanical thieves will be after your plants)

  3. JOHN SIEBER says

    During a Zombie Apocalypse is it safer to be in a high rise or in a single story home? No brainer except venruring out for food and water and also discarding your zombies neighbors on the 20th floor.

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