Students need safe passage to school

By Matt Watson

Boarded up houses loom over large swaths of Chicago, standing as dismal reminders of the recession. These eyesores serve as havens for gangs, drug dealers and squatters, creating dangerous areas in already troubled neighborhoods. It isn’t uncommon for dead pit bulls, the casualties of ruthless dog fights, to be found in abandoned homes. With more than 10,500 foreclosures in the city in 2010, the problem shows no sign of abating.

Foreclosed and abandoned homes spawn more than just a problem of blighted real estate. The foreclosure mess may have caused the economic downturn, but it’s now creating an unsafe environment for students who walk to school. The terrible situation was highlighted in 2009 with the beating death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert.

On Oct. 5, members of the City Council introduced an ordinance that holds owners of vacant properties accountable for the safety hazards such buildings create. The ordinance would require owners of five or more buildings to post a daytime guard at any vacant property within 1,000 yards of a public school between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., as well as place metal plates over doors and windows where the plywood has been torn off. Violators would be charged a $1,000 fine.

The city has long grappled with the problem of how to deal with the huge amount of vacant buildings scattered across the city, especially on the South and West sides. When a home goes into foreclosure, the bank repossesses it, but the process can take up to two years and banks rarely care to maintain such properties. The properties then sit in a state of limbo, leaving them to be used as drug dens and dog-fighting arenas.

This ordinance offers the only viable solution to the problem. The large financial institutions that own the majority of these vacant buildings don’t want to pay for the security and upkeep, yet they’re the ones responsible for giving out risky loans and should be held responsible. With the city and Chicago Public Schools’ budgetary problems, they are in no position to pay for such measures.

CPS students already encounter too many hurdles to getting a good education—they don’t need to worry about their safety on top of that. No student should be afraid to walk to school; this only creates a more stressful learning environment. The school district is spending $10 million to add security camera systems to 14 more schools. The program, called Safe Passage, has helped reduce crime at schools by 22 percent in the past two years, according to CPS.

It’s a great start, but more needs to be accomplished before every student in Chicago feels safe traveling to school. Banks created this mess, and now it’s time for them to lend a hand. Bank of America, Chase and other large financial institutions love to advertise how much they help out communities. Supporting this ordinance would prove such claims.

The proposal doesn’t hit mom-and-pop landlords because it exempts owners of less than five buildings from the ordinance. Yet it holds the enormous banks who received billions in public bailout funds responsible. There should have been a provision in the Troubled Asset Relief Fund stating that banks who receive money need to maintain foreclosed homes, but that didn’t happen, and the past is the past.

What we can look forward to, though, is the future. If this ordinance passes, thousands of these vacant buildings will be cleared of crime. Drug dealers and gangs won’t disappear, but they’ll be moved away from public schools and away from a large portion of their market. Fully eliminating these two groups won’t happen overnight, but keeping them away from students is a step in the right direction.

In the past, banks have countered that such an ordinance would scare financial institutions away from giving out loans. I doubt that—loans are how they make money, and home loans are by far the most profitable kind. The City Council and mayor need to call their bluff and pass this ordinance. It was their greed in handing out more of these loans to people who couldn’t afford it that caused this mess, so even if their threat is real, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

For more information on the ordinance, see “Securing Students’ Safety at School,” Pg. 35.