PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday July 11th, 2012, 1:58pm

Neighborhoods May Not Be Ultimate Winners In Plan To Demolish High-Crime Properties

A plan to demolish abandoned buildings in high-crime areas used for illegal activity in Chicago has not been well received by housing advocates. They say area residents may not wind up the big winners once the plan gets executed.

On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he wants to demolish about 200 vacant properties to help curb crime and gang activity in the city, and that doesn’t sit well with some advocates for housing and working families.

The community-justice group Action Now recently released a statement saying working families “will no longer find shelter” in Chicago because of Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department’s crime-prevention measure.

“The mayor is going in the wrong direction,” wrote Action Now President Michelle Young. “The solution to the vacant property problem is not creating more destruction by demolishing buildings.”

The city should rebuild communities by transforming vacant buildings into homes for families, Young wrote.

Katelyn Johnson, executive director of the Action Now Institute, told Progress Illinois the city should strengthen and enforce its Vacant Property Ordinance and call on the banks to maintain and secure foreclosed buildings instead of the city picking up the tab.   

She said she’s worried this plan will create “ghost towns” out of Englewood and North Lawndale and other communities with high crime and a large amount of vacant buildings.

As part of the city’s initiative, the police and buildings departments will work together to prioritize, demolish and secure those abandoned properties identified as hubs for violence and illegal activity. 

Chicago’s Department of Buildings is expected to set aside about $4 million for the plan, according to a release from the mayor’s office.

Currently, there are about 200 properties on the city’s list to demolish.

Department of Buildings spokeswoman Caroline Weisser said the city will not release the list of properties at this time, citing legal reasons.

She did say the 200 properties are both residential and commercial, located in high-crime areas and are not structurally stable.  

The collaborative effort will focus on the 7th, 11th, 3rd, 8th and 10th Police Districts, which are located on the South and West Sides including the Ashburn, Englewood, Woodlawn and North and South Lawndale neighborhoods, among others.

At least one South Side alderman said he wants to see the list of the 200 properties slated for demolition and hopes the mayor and police department will work closely with aldermen and community organizations as the initiative moves forward.

Brian Sleet, Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s (6th) chief of staff, said the alderman is not the “largest fan” of tearing down vacant properties, because they’re often left as open lots, which are “a source of distress” in the ward.

Sawyer’s ward incorporates portions of the 7th and 3rd Police Districts where the plan will be implemented.

“We are a little bit cautious of tearing down anything that could be saved,” Sleet said.

New construction on vacant lots is also expensive, Sleet added.

“Ground-up construction is so high these days,” Sleet said. “The likelihood of getting something new rebuilt is low.”

Weisser said as the program moves forward, the city is open to continuing conversations with aldermen and community groups about what properties should be added to the list.

“We want everyone to be on-board [with] flagging problem buildings,” she said.

Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois, said although he’s not sure what properties are slated for demolition or what will be done with the land after buildings are gone, maintaining the housing is the “best option.”

“It’s unfortunate when properties are demolished,” Palmer said.

It “would be a better world” if there were adequate resources for rehabilitating Chicago’s existing housing stock for more affordable units, he said.

Palmer added that many properties are in foreclosure in the city, with some falling into disrepair because the banks that took possession didn’t maintain them.

He said the city should find a way to get resources from the bank to deal with these vacant and crime-haven properties, otherwise it’s a win for financial institutions.

“The banks will say thank you.”

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