After suspected serial killer Darren Vann led police in Gary, Ind., to the bodies of six women that had been hidden in vacant houses, many journalists called attention to the problem of urban blight, which has hit Gary particularly hard.

City officials estimate that there are 8,000 vacant houses in Gary, about one out of every five houses in the city sitting empty.

Ten Chicago neighborhoods have vacancy rates higher than Gary’s. In Riverdale, home of the dilapidated Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray housing projects and many abandoned factories and warehouses, 45 percent of houses are vacant, according to the 2010 Census.

Six other neighborhoods in Chicago have vacancy rates at or above 25 percent: Fuller Park, Washington Park, Woodlawn and Englewood on the South Side, and North Lawndale and East Garfield Park on the West Side.

Accompanying high vacancy rates are other signs of hardship: high rates of poverty and unemployment and low educational attainment and household income. It’s not surprising, then, that in addition to having the highest vacancy rate in the city, Riverdale also has the lowest per-capita income and the highest poverty rate of any community area in Chicago.

It isn’t cause and effect, of course. Vacant houses don’t cause poverty or crime. And none of these factors caused the horrific murders in Indiana—or make it more likely that a serial killer will terrorize Chicago neighborhoods with similar socio-economic conditions.

But there is a correlation. As in Gary, where widespread blight apparently provided a dumping ground in a suspected serial killing case—police say Vann has confessed to killing seven women— the blight and poverty in these Chicago neighborhoods represent communities that have been written off and shut out of economic development.

Gary officials have been working to board up or demolish vacant houses, but they have fallen way behind. According to city officials, they are on pace to demolish just 150 structures this year, less than 2 percent of the vacant buildings.

Across the state line in Chicago, the city demolished 524 buildings in 2013 at a cost of more than $10 million–that’s  out of an estimated 75,000 vacant houses citywide (which doesn’t include buildings that are vacant but for rent or for sale or those that are occupied part-time).

Demolitions, of course, don’t solve the underlying problem. Until cities like Gary and neighborhoods like Riverdale get access to capital and the economic development they need, vacancies and the social ills that correlate with them, will continue to flourish.



Jonah is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @jonahshai.