Home buyers in Chicago are almost always concerned about whether or not a particular neighborhood is safe or they may ask us for recommendations of a safe neighborhood. The only problem is that there is no simple way for us to provide advice on this subject so most realtors are going to avoid the entire subject – and I’m one of them. The reason for the difficulty is that there is limited objective data to begin with and opinions on relative safety are highly subjective anyway. In addition, if a realtor tells a buyer that a neighborhood is safe and that buyer later becomes a crime victim in that neighborhood then that realtor might have a problem. But let’s explore this topic a bit more.
There are Web sites like EveryBlock that provide lots of Chicago crime data, including maps of individual crimes. However, that interface leaves a lot to be desired and the different data views always seem to be either too granular or too aggregated. That’s why I turned to the Chicago Police Department Web site to provide me with an overview of crime by neighborhood. Their annual reports provide a great overview of crime in the city. 2008 is the most recent report available, with the 2009 report probably coming out in a few more months.
Reading through the report is rather educational because it highlights an important distinction between the different types of crimes. For instance, the only crimes reported by neighborhood are what the FBI refers to as index crimes. As the report says, “Index crimes are the combination of eight categories of crime, selected because of their seriousness and frequency of occurrence.” The eight categories, broken down into two groups, are as follows:
- Criminal Sexual Assault
- Aggravated Assault/Batter
- Motor Vehicle Theft
Noticeably absent from this list are prostitution, drug activity, graffiti, and disorderly conduct, which the FBI clearly does not see as being “serious” enough to qualify as index crimes. So this highlights perhaps the most subjective aspect of the concept of a “safe neighborhood” – what does “safe” mean exactly? I would guess that most people would not feel comfortable living in a neighborhood where there are lot of these non-index criminal activities going on, yet those crimes are not summarized at the neighborhood level by the Chicago Police department because they are not as serious. (They are available on the EveryBlock Web site, however.) In addition, many buyers look for other subjective clues as to whether or not a neighborhood is safe – e.g. are there a lot of adult males loitering on the street during normal work hours?
So, what do the index crime data tell us about relative neighborhood safety? You’d be surprised. I took the Chicago neighborhood index crime statistics from the annual report and normalized them for neighborhood population – i.e. what are the crimes as a percentage of neighborhood population, or what is the probability that you would become a crime victim in a particular neighborhood. The results are available in the two charts shown below.
Chicago Violent Crime By Neighborhood
Chicago Property Crime By Neighborhood
What you will notice is that some of this data runs counter to people’s intuition. For instance, I often hear people refer to Uptown or Hyde Park as being “dangerous” but according to this data you are more likely to become a victim of violent crime in the Loop than you are in either of these neighborhoods – and way more likely to become a victim of property crime. And you are more likely to become a victim of property crime in Lincoln Park than in either of these neighborhoods – because “that’s where the money is”. However, in all fairness, places like the Loop and the Near North Side have a huge influx of people every day that are not reflected in the population numbers and that invites more crime and thus skews the statistics.
By now you are getting a pretty good indication of just how complex this whole analysis is. That’s why if you ask me how safe a neighborhood is I’ll tell you to drive around at a few different times of day and visit a crime statistics Web site. But if you take that advice to heart you may just end up moving to Iowa.