There’s No Such Thing as a Safe Neighborhood

When I start working with a new renter or home buyer to find them a new place to live in Chicago I have a certain list of questions that I review with them. It helps me to figure out what they're looking for and refine the search criteria that I will use in the MLS. Included in this list are things like their price range, the names of the decision makers, their timeframe for moving, whether or not they have pets, whether or not they smoke... all of these are very basic questions that most folks can easily answer.

Then comes the big one. "What neighborhood would you like to live in?"

Many at this point will have a list of areas that they'd consider acceptable. Some even have street coordinates beyond which they do not wish to live. I love clients like that. But at least half of the time there will be this comment: "I want to live in a safe neighborhood."

And I wince inside.

I'm sorry Dave, but I can't do that.

You see, every two years I have to go to class to maintain my license. And every two years, one of those classes I have to take is about fair housing law. That's all of the laws that keep you guys able to live wherever you want to, regardless of who your parents are or what you believe to be true.

A couple of the things they teach me about are "redlining" and "steering." We Realtors need to know the difference between them, but basically they mean keeping "those people" out of particular neighborhoods on the basis of who their parents are or what they believe to be true, or nudging them towards other neighborhoods for the same reasons. They're both against the law. If a Realtor were restrict an Asian family to only viewing properties in Chinatown, that would be illegal, obviously. But it also cuts into what I can and cannot say about the safety in a neighborhood.

There's a very fine line between showing people property in neighborhoods that I personally feel to be safe, and neighborhoods that they as clients feel to be safe. And somewhere on that line is the difference between me keeping you happy in your new home and me winding up in handcuffs in front of a judge.

On top of being illegal, it's ethically wrong for me to force my opinion of what is or isn't a safe neighborhood on you. After all, I used to close up alone at 1am or 2am on a regular basis and take the El home from a school in a neighborhood viewed as one of the roughest in the city. When I was a teenager in New England my mom used to take me up to Boston of the weekends, drop me off at the train and leave me there. I currently live on a block where I am in a definite minority as someone who has spoken English all my life. I never feel safer than when walking by the local strip club.

My regard for my own well-being is viewed by many as lacking. Why should I consider my own criteria for a "safe" neighborhood to be the same as yours?

Here's the next thing, and really the point of this whole entry. As the title says, there is no such thing as a safe neighborhood in Chicago. This is the city. There are "name brand" neighborhoods that are traditionally viewed from the outside as the domain of rich white people. There are sections of the city with cameras everywhere. That doesn't make any of them necessarily "safe."

Don't believe me? This is Trulia's Beta Crime Heatmap for Chicago. I'll include a photo of today's snapshot in case it ever goes away.  Dark green areas mean that there were no crimes on a particular block during the entire year. Do you see dark green on there anywhere? Light green yes, but there was not a single block in Chicago that didn't see at least one crime in the past 12 months.

2012-02-25 Trulia Crime Heatmap for Chicago

Do you see dark green? I don't.

"Ok," you say, "But any of the light green areas are just fine. It's only a few crimes. I can handle that, that's safe." Then in that case, the city is your playground.

But what if that one crime is a murder? Does that change things? What if the neighborhood is completely safe because it's locked down as gang turf, and the few crime incidents are all gang graffiti tagging? What if the crime was a hit and run of a bicyclist and you bike to work every day? Safety is a very relative thing. I am not in a position to judge from my very first conversation with you what you consider to be "safe," and as the person who is expected to help you find your home I take my responsibility to provide you with the best possible care as seriously as possible.

Here's what I can do.

Look, I'm a nerd. I've been wearing glasses since I was 3, and doing homework (intentionally or accidentally) for my peers for about that long as well. As a Realtor I'm happy to do as much research as necessary on your behalf to make sure that you know what you're getting into with this major purchase.

I will research crime stats for you - if you let me know which crimes are important to you. I will get you a list of the last 10, 30, 50 reported crimes in the closest 3, 6, 8 blocks closest to your home of choice. I will not take you anywhere that's red on the crime map if that's what you want, although in doing so you will miss out on such Chicago neighborhood highlights as the Loop, Old Town, the Gold Coast and Wicker Park - all high crime areas according to the map.

I will go beyond the Trulia map over to the City of Chicago Data Portal and parse the raw crime stats for you if that's what you want. I used to be a database engineer, I can do that.

I will speak with you about what you like to do, what foods you like, your health club memberships, your kids' schooling and special needs, your church groups and your commute to work, and match you up with a selection of neighborhoods that will suit your personality.

But I cannot promise you that they are safe neighborhoods - more particularly, I cannot promise that within those neighborhoods you and your family will always be safe.

Here's how you can take control.

Don't make your Realtor wince. Don't make us risk our licenses and our livelihoods for you. (Please!) Don't risk your family's well-being on a Realtor who's willing to break the law and force their own opinion about safety on you. Do your research instead, and be ready with details.

If you don't know the neighborhoods, put together a list of what you value the most in your life and say "help me find an area where these things are at the least risk of being taken from me."

If you don't have much of value except yourself, say "I want to live somewhere where I am always on well-traveled and well-lit streets when I am walking home from the El."

If you are affiliated with a gang, say "I want to avoid areas that are known to be the turf of Rival Gang X," although you probably already know where those are without my help.

If you saw a list of safe neighborhoods in a magazine somewhere, send me the list and say "I want to look only in these areas."

I can work with that. If you give me some context, I'm happy to show you property only in neighborhoods where you will feel safe. But don't make me unpack that word all on my own, or we will wind up wasting a lot of time.