Does demolishing buildings in Chicago actually reduce crime rates?

Chicago has pursued a policy of tearing down vacant buildings to help reduce crime but one expert doesn’t think it is making much of a difference:

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…

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.”

Knowing Chicago’s past regarding demolishing public housing (such as Cabrini-Green as I wrote about here and here), the continued lengthy wait lists for public housing, how the sites for public housing were chosen in the first place (generally located in already-downtrodden areas), and the shortage of affordable housing in Chicago, I suspect this is more to this story. Getting rid of these buildings might be reducing the potential for crime but it also helps clear out unsightly buildings that have little potential for redevelopment. Such buildings might take a long time to rehab or remove otherwise but suggesting they are part of a crime problem makes them an easier target.

If knocking down such buildings is so effective for fighting crime, why aren’t more cities pursuing this option?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s