My job often involves providing commercial real estate investors and occupiers with assessments of local market conditions that can impact where they decide to invest or where they locate. Perhaps the trickiest subject to broach with them is the issue of crime and its impact on real estate demand. I generally try to avoid the topic altogether, but it has become increasingly difficult to do so.
A case in point is a recent video I made extolling the virtues of Chicago to real estate occupiers and investors. Our local Chicago team saw the first cut of the video and sent me back to the drawing board because I didn’t address the city’s well-publicized crime issue head on.
The same thing happened to me when I recently visited Albuquerque, where the locals needled me with jokes about the television show “Breaking Bad,” which highlights the illegal drug trade in that city. The jokes were funny up until when they told me that much of what is depicted in the show is true.
Like my friends in Albuquerque, I have been living with the blowback from another television show set in my hometown of Baltimore. “The Wire” depicts the local narcotics and corruption scene and is invariably mentioned to me by potential investors all over the world whenever the subject of real estate opportunities in Baltimore arises.
I have always advocated growth and creating opportunities for all — especially for those most susceptible to the wrong path — as the solution. Chicago is growing just fine from a commercial real estate perspective, and Baltimore is showing real promise in and around the Inner Harbor and elsewhere. There is no community in America that isn’t scarred by crime to one degree or another. Crime is no excuse not to grow; it is the reason to grow.
But then crime hit home, and that philosophy was no longer so natural to sell.
My 13-year-old son’s friends were attacked by a group of older kids on Halloween night while they were trick-or-treating on the streets of Baltimore. A gun was pulled, and one of the kids was beaten so badly that he had to go to the hospital; the screams of his mother when we found him will live with me until the day I die.
I began to question whether I had the courage to continue shouting “Kumbaya” from my business pulpit.
Many others are already finding that the solution for them is not to come together as a community, but to simply move out of town or separate by building walls — both literally and figuratively through fences, not-in-my-backyard lawsuits or zoning board members sitting on their hands when the next housing project seeks approval in “their” town. These include not only restrictions on housing but also roadways and other infrastructure that connect city neighborhoods.
I admit the recent run-in with criminal activity shook my conviction — and it pales in comparison to the experiences of those affected by Baltimore’s rising murder rate, which has exceeded 300 for the third year in a row. But I still believe my own words: Unity and growth are necessary to combat social issues, including crime.
I have learned one key lesson, though. Silence or sweeping the crime issue under the rug is no better than erecting walls. To deal with crime, we have to acknowledge it.
Spencer Levy (Twitter: @SpencerGLevy) is the national head of research at CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate servicing firm; he is based in Baltimore.