Waterbury is among the Connecticut communities where it is believed that a decrease in violent crime will help bolster sales in the housing market. The home pictured above, located at 5 Houston St., recently sold for $79,900 as part of a foreclosure.

An 80 percent increase in murders and non-negligent manslaughters and an 18 percent increase in aggravated assault pushed Hartford’s violent crime rate for 2003 up about 17 percent from the year before, but the ominous statistics haven’t left their mark on the city’s housing market.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation released statistics last week pinpointing increases and decreases in violent crime in the country’s big cities and, while Connecticut saw big improvement in some cities, Hartford did not fare so well.

Hartford police last year saw 45 murders or non-negligent manslaughters – 16 of which happened when a nursing home was set on fire early in the year – 64 forcible rapes and 1,024 robberies – the highest in the state in all those categories, according to statistics from the FBI.

But violent crime has gone down this year since acting Chief Mark Pawlina took the helm of the Police Department. From Jan. 1 to May 15, murder was down 74 percent compared to the same time last year, Pawlina said. Rape was down 11.4 percent and assaults were down 19.4 percent. Property crimes have gone up and have pushed up the overall crime rate 12 percent, but 27 percent of property crimes over the past few months have been stolen license plates, according to Pawlina. The department is addressing that problem by giving away customized license plate screws that can only be removed with a special tool.

Although overall crime has gone up, the decrease in violent crime has given residents of Hartford a sense of safety on the street, Pawlina said. That sense is more likely to affect housing prices than actual statistics, he added.

“Perception of crime is far more important than actual crime stats,” he said.

City officials hope the recent hiring of a new police chief, New York Police Department veteran Patrick J. Harnett, who will start work later this year, will help improve the statistics even more.

“I think the leadership at the Police Department hasn’t been as accountable as it should have been,” said Matt Hennessy, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez’s chief of staff.

Changes in the city charter also could help improve the situation, he noted. This year is the first with a “strong mayor” form of government that allows the mayor to choose the police chief and requires that the chief report to him, Hennessy said.

The city also has been spending more money on the Police Department, with 40 new recruits set to join the force later this year, he said.

“There’s a lot of momentum here,” Hennessy said.

And although the new police chief will have his work cut out for him, the statistics don’t necessarily spell doom for the city’s housing market, one real estate broker said.

“It’s like that all over the country,” said Greg Neary, a broker with Century 21 All Towns in East Hartford. “People still have to live. I don’t think it’s going to affect where people live.”

Hennessy agreed.

“The market hasn’t been affected at all in the city,” he said, citing luxury apartments that are to be built as a part of a mixed-use development called Town Square.

And Hartford’s median single-family home price hasn’t suffered. The city ranked 53rd in the state for price increases from 2002 to 2003, with a 15 percent increase, according to The Warren Group, parent company of The Commercial Record.

The ramifications from the recently released statistics haven’t hit the housing market yet, but Neary said he isn’t too worried about it. Most violent crimes occur between people who know each other, he said, so most law-abiding citizens don’t have a lot to worry about.

Feeling ‘Safer’

But in other Connecticut towns that saw the opposite trend, real estate agents say decreases in violent crime statistics should prove to be a big help to the residential markets there.

“It’ll definitely help the housing market [in Bridgeport],” said Kevin Hickey, manager of the Norwalk office of William Pitt Realty.

Bridgeport’s number of violent crimes went down by 19.5 percent in 2003, according to the FBI. The city saw 15 murders or non-negligent manslaughters, 49 forcible rapes and 439 robberies. The city’s decrease was nearly the largest on the East Coast, trailing Cape Coral, Fla., a city that had a 19.8 percent decrease, according to the Associated Press.

Bridgeport ranked 104th in the state for median single-family home price increase, with a 10 percent increase from 2002 to 2003, according to The Warren Group.

Bridgeport Police spokeswoman Sheila Santiago attributes the decline to better cooperation within the department. There has been more communication and intelligence sharing between the patrolmen, the detective bureau and the community policing squad in recent years, she said. The city also takes part in a federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods, which has the police working closely with the district attorney’s office to lock up repeat offenders for longer sentences, she said.

The changes have boosted the department’s morale, she said.

“The chief is very proud of their efforts,” Santiago said.

The department also has been focusing on what Santiago called “quality-of-life issues.” Police spend more time responding to smaller complaints, like those about loud music. That has given officers higher visibility, she said, which has been a major deterrent against violent crimes. The officers also work closer to the public by using mounted and motorcycle patrols, she said.

“A lot of [the decrease] has to do with visibility,” Santiago said.

The changes are evident in Bridgeport, she said.

“You will feel a lot safer going out,” she said. “You can see more people coming out.”

Hickey hopes the changes will make people more willing to move to the area. Potential homebuyers often stop by City Hall or the Police Department to check on Bridgeport’s crime statistics before moving there.

“I think it’s a common question,” he said.

Although the statistics haven’t had time to sink in yet, Bridgeport’s housing market has been off to a good start in 2004, Hickey said.

“I’m expecting that to continue,” he said.

Violent crime also dropped in Waterbury. The city of about 109,000 saw a 17.5 percent decrease in violent crime. The decrease was the third biggest on the East Coast, placing Waterbury just behind Bridgeport, according to the Associated Press.

Waterbury’s crime was already much lower than Bridgeport’s and Hartford’s. In 2003, Waterbury saw 481 violent crimes, compared with Bridgeport’s 1,365 and Hartford’s 1,812.

“I think you’ll start seeing more and more people buying into Waterbury,” said Joe Cirillo, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker 2000 in Naugatuck who lives in Waterbury.

The community’s housing market has been strong and Cirillo expects the decrease in violent crime will bolster that.

“My personal feeling is it’s going to help the market in Waterbury,” he said. “You’re starting to see Waterbury come back.”

Waterbury’s improvements came when the police became more visible, said Sheila O’Malley, special assistant to Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura. More officers walk their beats on foot or ride bikes, she said.

“I think the chief has been really diligent,” O’Malley said.

Linda Fercodini, broker-owner of Fercodini Properties in Wolcott, attributed the changes to “the very good leadership of Mayor Jarjura,” calling him smart and well liked.

“He knows what he’s doing,” she said.

Under the mayor’s leadership, members of the city government have been working together in a bipartisan way, Fercodini said.

The drop in violent crimes will help the housing market, she said. People looking for a new home consider several factors, such as the condition of the house itself, the quality of the schools and the safety of the area, Fercodini said.

“It’s a very positive effect on the market,” she said. “I think it’s very important.”

Waterbury, like Bridgeport, has achieved a sense of security for its residents, O’Malley said. And its home prices continue to rise. Waterbury ranked 86th in the state for median single-family home price increase in 2003, with a 12 percent increase from the year before, according to The Warren Group.