Today, the city of Chicago demolished its “200th dangerous building” since July 12, according to the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor stated in a press release that demolitions are “preventing criminal activity in our neighborhoods.”
Is this true? “We’ve been knocking down houses since the 1930’s and it’s not clear if this has a significant effect on crime rates,” says Bradford Hunt, a sociology professor at Roosevelt University who studies Chicago housing issues.
Also in question: How does the city determine what properties see the wrecking ball?
The Department of Buildings, or DOB, has spent $3 million “to reduce the number of vacant buildings that serve as hubs for violence and hives for criminal activity,” according to the mayor's office. The mayor announced the demolition plan this summer amid scrutiny of the rising murder rate.
The city murder rate has since declined, even still the number of homicides this year has surpassed 2011’s 435 total murders. Last year’s murder rate was the city’s lowest since 1965.
Chicago has traditionally been “more aggressive in doing tear downs than other cities,” Hunt says, citing Detroit as an example of a city that does not allocate crime resources to building demolitions.
In the late 1990’s, crime went down in Chicago during a spree of building teardowns, including public housing projects. But Hunt notes that the ebbing of the crack cocaine epidemic was the main cause for the 90s crime drop. Teardowns and subsequent displacement of residents have not been clearly linked to either an increase or decrease in crime.
Emanuel’s demolitions are concentrated in a few South Side and West Side police districts with high crime rates. DOB spokeswoman Susan Masell says her department works with the police department to pick buildings for demolition, looking at edifices that get a lot of 911 or 311 calls and are “structurally compromised.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s sixth ward has been the site of several demolitions including the July tear down of a building at 7100 South Rhodes Avenue. Sawyer grimly notes that one-week after that teardown a 25 year-old man was shot and killed in the destroyed building’s parking lot.
Still, Sawyer says the demolition policy can work, but the city “needs to interact with us about what are the suitable candidates for demolition.”
“I think they should give us a list of candidates,” Sawyer says. “I have three burn outs on the same block” at 7400 South Langley Avenue that “need to be torn down immediately.”
Community group Action Now also laments the lack of city input. "They are just coming in and creating more destruction in our neighborhoods," Action Now member Charles Brown said of the Emanuel administration. "Vacant lots are just as dangerous as vacant buildings. We need to build communities back up instead of knocking them down.”
Building demolition is also a response to the foreclosure crisis and “part of an overall effort to respond to vacant properties,” Massel says.
Another part of this effort is the enforcement of the 2011 Vacant Property Ordinance, which forces banks to register vacant properties with the city and pay a fee for this registration. So far banks have registered 7,900 buildings with the city generating $2.7 million in revenue, Massel says. There are an estimated 18,000 vacant city properties.
As PI has reported, Action Now would like more focus on the Vacant Property Ordinance and other policies to rehab, instead of tear down, properties. They have even suggested using the city's new Infrastructure Trust, a public-private partnernship non-profit, to revitalize vacant buildings.