Fred Mitchell is getting a little tired of the crime in North Lawndale, and he’s got a plan to improve things.
With incidences of drug dealings, gangs and shootings, Mitchell, a North Lawndale resident and community activist, said residents feel unsafe and something needs to be done about it.
His solution is a program that would allow a police officer to live in a city-owned house in North Lawndale. That, according to Mitchell, would give police visibility in the community and drive down crime.
“The idea of having a police officer whose beat is in his own neighborhood is very effective,” he said. “The officer knows everyone in the community, and he builds a relationship with the people he is protecting.”
Though the idea is still being developed, Mitchell proposes purchasing a house through Tax Increment Financing.
TIF funds are generated by new property taxes in an area where the tax base has been frozen. Any new property taxes are put into a fund set up for redevelopment projects in that district. The North Lawndale TIF district could fund the residential home of a police officer, Mitchell argues.
Valerie F. Leonard, a community development consultant who lives in North Lawndale, agrees that crime is up and help is needed. She said she worries most about the children in her neighborhood.
“At 8 or 9 years old, these boys are already on the fringe of being in a gang or selling drugs,” said Leonard, who lost her aldermanic bid April 5 for the 24th Ward, which covers North Lawndale.
“By the time they are teenagers, they are getting into trouble,” she added.
Years ago, Leonard had several youngsters help her with small projects, such as gardening or voter registration, to keep them out of trouble.
“I would ask them questions like: What do you want to be when you grow up? They would tell me: A lawyer, or a fireman,” she said. “But some of the same boys who wanted to be lawyers now have no hope because they’re in a gang, or they’re selling drugs, or both.”
A similar live-in program is being pursued in DeKalb.
Police Chief Bill Feithen said the program would not only increase police and community interaction, it would also help improve properties in the neighborhood. The city would buy a property in declining condition, improve that property and move an officer in, Feithen said.
Improving the property, he adds, would motivate others in the area to do the same.
“The idea is then to have the officer reside there for a handful of years and then sell the property in an updated condition in a safe neighborhood,” Feithen said.
He added that TIF money would be used to purchase and make any renovations to a property. The officer who moves in would then be in charge of paying for utilities, and rent would be free or nominal, according to Feithen. The details of how it would work will not be decided until the idea is taken to the city council in DeKalb.
A resident officer program has been operating in Elgin since 1991, and is currently active in seven neighborhoods. Critics, however, question how the property costs would be handled.
Richard F. Dye, a professor in government and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the community would have to see concrete results for the project to be advantageous.
“In order for this project to work, improved safety has to be reflected in improved property value as well,” he said, voicing equal concerns about using TIF dollars.
“Most people believe that TIF money is a cookie jar that will pay for anything. But I am skeptical about TIF use. It is a hidden form of public budgeting,” Dye said.
TIF money captures an increase in property values whether or not they are caused by the development expenditures, Dye explained, adding that any increase in property value is used to raise taxes for that district. So if a TIF project is used to fund a property-improvement project, the property tax will go up and taxpayers will pay for it later. Ultimately, taxpayers are still paying the city and paying the TIF fund, Dye said.
Right now, the idea for North Lawndale just needs to gain some traction, Mitchell insists. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel finalizes his cabinet, Mitchell believes the idea will gather more steam.
“If we can’t make him take our wishes to City Hall and get an ordinance passed, I will run for City Council and take the message to the mayor myself,” Mitchell said.