Safety and the Illusion Thereof

One of the most common questions among renters and buyers moving to new areas is whether or not those areas are “safe.” In fact, the majority of moves, be it between apartments, condos or houses, are within a very short distance. Safety and comfort levels are definitely a factor in this particular statistic – people stay within the area that they know. However, with rising prices in both the rental and purchase housing markets, many Chicagoans are faced with moving to new sections of the city where safety is an unknown factor. As for the folks moving from outside the city, it’s tough enough to understand the hundreds of distinct neighborhoods within the city limits, let alone to compare crime statistics to a reasonable extent.

Antique maps show monsters and dragons beyond the edges of known lands. This is coincidentally also the worldview of people who are moving to a new neighborhood.

Antique maps show monsters and dragons beyond the edges of known lands. This is coincidentally also the worldview of people who are moving to a new neighborhood.

As much as I’d like to reach every renter and buyer and explain to them how to statistically analyze crime risk in a given neighborhood, I can’t do so. Even if I did, my own rational explanations would be massively overwhelmed by the media hype surrounding Chicago’s high crime rates. Those crimes may be consolidated in areas far removed from your neighborhoods of choice. They may have little to no bearing on your daily life. However, they are prominent in the minds of any home seeker, and it’s tough to combat emotional conviction with reason. What you must fight against is not the idea that your particular area is a bad neighborhood, but that the entire city is a homogeneous, crime-ridden hole.

If you’re a landlord or home seller, it’s therefore far more critical to be aware of how safe your neighborhood feels. You can rattle off all the stats in the world, but if a potential buyer or renter feels wrong in your immediate vicinity they will not be interested in making an offer on your property. This is even more critical if you’re expecting to get an above-average price for your listing, since those tend to be taken only by folks from out of town who don’t know any better. Curb appeal in Chicago is not just about the visual appeal of your yard and building. It is also majorly affected by the aura of safety or danger projected by your block.

Familiarity Breeds Contentment

I’ve been living in Chicago for 15 years now, but I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut and spent several summers mucking about in small New England towns. The last town where I worked before moving here was so small, the residents got offended if they saw you locking your car doors. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was a wide-eyed hick when I moved out here in the late 90’s, but it did take a bit before I found my “city legs.”

Lincoln, NH. My last "home" before moving to Chicago.

Lincoln, NH. My last temporary “home” before moving to Chicago.

Before I moved out here the worst sort of crime I encountered was a prank phone call or two. Since then I’ve had my car windows smashed in three times. Now, for Chicago these crimes are pretty benign, but the first time it happened to me it was still pretty shocking. The third time? I’d gotten used to it. I rolled my eyes, called up my mechanic (Speed Dial 6) and hauled out the vacuum.

As owners in Chicago we become inured to the level of criminal activity that surrounds us. The longer we stay here, the more difficult it becomes to see our neighborhoods through the eyes of a newcomer. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to market your home to a new resident that is exactly what you have to do.

Zeroing Out the Scales

For me, getting into a buyer or renter’s head often involves a day trip to the suburbs. I encourage prospective home sellers and landlords to do the same before they put their property on the market. There is not enough difference between Chicago neighborhoods to truly serve as a “control” in our safety experiment. You need to get out of the city completely – maybe even out of the county – and go spend a day walking in the shoes of someone from the outside. I don’t just mean a quick jaunt to Evanston, either. Get out beyond the reach of the El and walk around a residential neighborhood that has absolutely nothing in common with the city. The best time to do it is a weekday afternoon.

Observe everything while you’re out there. Notice how far the houses sit back from the street. Pay attention to the people walking around, the cars and where they park, the separation of commercial and residential areas. Observe what happens when a school lets out for the day. Spend some time walking around after the shops close.

"Honey, look! They still have front-in parking here! That's so cute!"

“Honey, look! They still have front-in parking here! That’s so cute!”

Once you’ve zeroed out your mental scales for what clean, wholesome livin’ is all about, it’s time to head back into the city and reassess your home turf.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

Upon returning from the city outskirts, it should become far more apparent what factors contribute to and detract from the feeling of safety in your own neighborhood. We’ve probably all had our moments in the city of turning down the wrong block and instantly knowing that we were unwelcome. However, if you’ve paid attention to the details in the suburbs you should be more able to pinpoint exactly what contributes to an illusion of safety.

Here are a few that I wrote down on my last trip back in from the hinterlands:

  • Claustrophobia. The distance from the sidewalk to the buildings (the “setback”) gets very shallow in some parts of Chicago. This can lead to a feeling of claustrophobia that can be off-putting for newcomers. The areas of the city that tend to feel “safer” also have deeper front lawns. Do buildings in your area crowd in close to pedestrians?
  • Gates and Grates. There are entire blocks where black iron fences line the street in front of the homes, and shops are secured with accordion grating. It’s a common enough sight in Chicago that locals tend to ignore it. To a newcomer, it can imply security problems and fear of trespassers.
This is probably not the "gated community" your prospective buyers and tenants have in mind.

This is probably not the “gated community” your prospective buyers and tenants have in mind. (Photo by therodabides on Flickr.)

  • Sounds. Listen to what’s going on, both during the day and at night. Do you hear lots of shouting? Traffic? Car alarms? How about friendly sounds, like the ice cream truck or the bus announcing streets as it drives along? Is it deathly quiet?
  • Interactions. Do the people walking past seem comfortable with your presence? Do they make eye contact or hurry past? Are there people just sitting around in their yards doing nothing? How about the local kids – what do they do after school? Are there parents and caretakers around? What about pets? Do you see a lot of people with small companion animals? Are there lots of strays? Do you see a lot of dogs that could be mistaken for guard dogs or fighting dogs?
  • Cars. What types of cars park near your house? Are they in good condition? Are there lots of cabs? How about old beater scrap metal trucks? Is there visible broken glass in the street left behind from break-ins? Any cars with the Denver boot, or piles of parking tickets?
  • Cameras. It isn’t tough to figure out that security cameras cameras in Chicago are a sure sign of a troubled neighborhood. Even without the obvious flashing blue lights, security cameras are a tipoff to newcomers that something has probably occurred to merit their installation.
  • Alleys. Newcomers won’t check, but Chicago residents know that our streets are like mullets – business up front, party in the back. Take a walk down your local alleys. Are they clean? Well-lit? Are the garages in good condition or are they covered in graffiti? How about the porches – are they well-maintained, or decrepit and covered in junk? Are the dumpsters tidy, or overflowing?
  • The Commute. The neighborhood around your house extends as far as the closest El station. Many newcomers will test the safety vibe of an area by making the walk from the train to their new prospective home. Alone. After dark. You should definitely do the same and make sure there’s nothing untoward to scare off a potential buyer or renter. Are the sidewalks in good condition? Are there panhandlers or large groups of loiterers hanging out anywhere along the way? Are there large stretches of empty stores or vacant lots?

These are only a few factors that contribute to my personal sense of safety in any given section of Chicago. I’m sure there are many others. Safety is a very relative thing, and I’ve lived here for a while now, so even with trips to the suburbs to freshen up my outsider eyes I know I’ve grown pretty blasé about the things that make Chicago feel like a city.

Assemble your own list of criteria and test it out by visiting a new section of the city. Do you feel safe there? Why? If not, why not? Which of your criteria are within your control to fix? Which ones do you just have to accept? Would you adjust your asking price accordingly because of them?

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Hi! Please note that I'm no longer a licensed Realtor and I don't check the comments very often anymore. You're welcome to leave questions but be aware that it may be a few months before I see it. For faster response, please use the Contact page to email me your questions.

-Kay C.

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