Chicago demolishes 300th vacant property

February 28, 2013

Chicago has demolished its 300th vacant building under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to deter criminal activity. It was a house in the Fernwood neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

First Deputy Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger with the police department says the vacant houses aren’t only safety hazards, but havens for gangs.

"They use these abandoned structures for stash houses, for guns and for drugs. They also use them for narcotic sales and as distribution points," he said.

He talked about a building in West Englewood that four months before demolition had 55 service calls, 14 incidents, 8 arrests.

"Since that building has been knocked down in the four months afterward there were 42 calls for service, 10 incidents and no arrests," he said.

But while abandoned houses may create an environment for drug sales, so do vacant lots, at least according to Charles Leeks, director of Neighborhood Housing Services in North Lawndale.

"The vacant lots are used for what’s euphemistically called ‘pass out days’ where the drug dealers actually have folks stand up in a line. They’re customers, and they give out samples of the drug," he said.

Leeks says there are blocks in Lawndale where homeowners are surrounded by vacant lots, and that’s been the problem for them.

"Is there any critical thinking about how to utilize these lots as a resource? Because I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of physical development in terms of housing or commercial activity happening on many of these lots because the market is really down," Leeks said.

According to the latest report from RealtyTrac, Chicago isn’t recovering from the housing crisis like other cities. In January, Illinois reported the third highest foreclosure rate in the country.

And the city certainly doesn’t have a shortage of vacant properties. There are about 18,000 according to the city’s buildings department. It costs the city between $15,000 to $20,000 to demolish these properties.

It's the city's responsibility after that to make sure the lot is kept and secure. Officer Wysinger says police also keep watch on vacant properties to make sure criminal activity doesn't move from one empty house to another.

As for vacant lots, Wysinger says some neighborhoods have started using them as community gardens, but that likely won’t happen for all 300 and counting.

"In this economy, I don’t think it could be happening fast enough," he said.

Meanwhile, the neighbors on either side of the house that was demolished Wednesday? They’re vacant houses too.